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Teacher Pay: The cost of learning

It's a priority in the legislature, and in the hearts of 44,000 educators across the state. A salary increase for teachers. It's been nearly 10 years since Oklahoma teachers saw a pay raise. Right now, their annual salary ranks 49th in the nation. 

And after a ballot question that would have raised it failed to pass, the issue has been thrust into the spotlight.

Teachers are caught in the middle.

"I don't think people who aren't in the schools know how hard the teachers work," said Sally Greenlee.

Greenlee has been in education for 40 years. Last June, she retired from Pioneer Park Elementary School after 13 years as principal. A lot has changed since 1976 when Greenlee first began teaching, and it's a harsh reality.

"It's too hard and they can't make ends meet. They deserve a decent salary where they can live and do the things they need to do," said Greenlee.
 
Brand new teachers with a Bachelor's Degree can earn nearly $33,000 at Lawton Public Schools. Some teachers 7News talked to said, in some cases, that money will go to help their students with clothes, shoes, even food all so they can help them learn better in the classroom.

"If there is a need, we figure out how to help these parents," said Greenlee. "These kids are our heart and they can't learn if they don't have the things they need."

Greenlee is calling on the state legislature to make changes. 
 
"If they do not do something, I feel we won't have a public education system that is quality," she said.

State Representative John Michael Montgomery says the House is looking at phasing in raises but given the state's $900 million budget shortfall. The question is, where will the money to pay for raises come from? 
  
"The first year, we are proposing to pay for it through savings from the state health insurance program," Montgomery said. "We self-insure our state employees and teachers currently, so we're looking at savings through that program and we're hoping to pay for that in year one."

A plan advanced by a House Committee last week proposed a $1,000 pay raise that will cost the state $50 million, and that's just the beginning. 
The proposal calls for a $2,000 increase in the second year, and $3,000 increase the third year. So by 2020, the state will have to come up with nearly $316 million additional dollars to fund teacher's salaries. 

Lawton Public Schools Foundation raises money to give back to teachers and students.  
 
"Every penny counts in education," said Lisa Carson, Executive Director of the Lawton Public School Foundation. "My goal is to get our story out there because Lawtonians are very giving people."

Carson says the generosity of the community allowed the Foundation to give away $80,000 worth of grants last year. The grants funded everything from classroom projects to books, to technology in the classroom.
 
"I can promise you, as the director of the Foundation, we're working extremely hard for matching grants, fundraising, pillar membership, so we can give it back to Lawton Public Schools and meet the needs of our classroom teachers and our students," Carson said.

The Foundation can only do so much. In the end, it falls back on lawmakers and their ability finds efficient ways to fund the cost of learning.
 
"Hang in there," Montgomery said. "I understand a lot of folks are not optimistic about their government. Across the board, they don't think we can solve problems. I have a responsibility to work diligently for them, teachers and the people I represent to improve those services and the product we're delivering to them."
  
In the meantime, current teachers will do what they are passionate about and Greenlee will continue to voice her concerns to state lawmakers.

"I pray they will do something," she said. "They're going to have to. That's my thing. They are going to have to do something, or our education system is going to go down the tubes."

Copyright 2017 KSWO. All rights reserved.

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