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‘We’re teachers too’: Community college faculty feel shortchanged by legislative raises

Meridian Community College instructor Brandi Pickett and students during the Fitness Aid and CPR class she teaches at the college, Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Legislature appropriated $11 million dollars for faculty pay raises at Mississippi’s community college system but some say it is not enough to ensure their salaries stay competitive with K-12 after the historic teacher pay raise. 

Mississippi’s 15 community colleges have long struggled to retain the best and brightest faculty due in part to a lack of state funding. A 2007 law mandates that community colleges receive mid-level funding, or half the per-student amount the Legislature appropriates to K-12 and the regional universities, but that has never happened. 

Now some are saying the historic pay raise for K-12 teachers, coupled with the comparably modest sum lawmakers appropriated for community college instructors, means many faculty could be making more money if they switched to teaching K-12. 

“I want to make it really clear, I’m pleased for the K-12 instructors,” said Thomas Huebner, Meridian Community College president. “But it will absolutely impact our ability to attract and retain instructors at the community college level.” 

The likelihood a community college instructor will make more in K-12 will vary, and there is a lack of data to show how that could play out in aggregate. The Mississippi Department of Education has not calculated how the pay raise will affect average teacher salaries. It also can be tricky to make a direct comparison between K-12 and community college instructors because they work varying contract lengths and teach different subject areas.

For instance,if Brandi Pickett, a wellness instructor at Meridian Community College, went back to K-12, the historic teacher pay raise means she could make about $14,000 more due to her years of experience and status as a National Board Certified Teacher. 

Pickett stays in her current position, with a base salary of $49,500 a year, because she went to community college and loves teaching students who remind her of herself.But she knows many community college faculty, especially those teaching general education courses like history or science, could be enticed to leave for K-12. 

“Why is it (my salary) not comparable to K-12?” Pickett said. “Why aren’t people trying … to give an incentive to keep those great teachers and not have them move? Where I’m from, people can go to Alabama, right across the state line, and be able to teach.” 

In March, the Legislature passed a $246 million K-12 teacher pay raise, the largest in state history. The average teacher in Mississippi made $46,862 during the 2020-21 school year, but that will increase with the pay raise. The average full-time community college instructor made $50,465 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. 

The presidents of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges initially asked the Legislature to appropriate $11 million for salaries, enough for a 3%-across-the-board raise for the system’s nearly 6,000 employees. But they increased that request to $25 million in January due to the rate of inflation and the historic amount that K-12 teachers were likely to get, said Kell Smith, the Mississippi Community College Board’s interim executive director. 

The Legislature stuck to the first request. 

Mississippi’s community colleges already struggle to retain faculty, especially those in career-technical education who can make significantly more working in the trade than teaching it. Huebner said MCC recently lost an instructor in the electric lineman program because the college could not match the salary offered by out-of-state industry. He described the process of trying to find a replacement as “unbelievable.” 

“There have been situations where we went nine months trying to find a welding instructor, because our pay scale was so far under what industry was trying to pay those folks,” he said. 

Without sufficient state funding, community colleges are hamstrung in their ability to raise faculty salaries on their own. Some colleges have pushed for higher property taxes to fill the budget gap or raised tuition, Huebner said. But the latter option makes it more difficult for community colleges to fulfill their charge: “Offering a working class option, or entry, into the higher ed system,” said Chris Stevenson, a history instructor at Itawamba Community College. 

Stevenson says he and his wife like to joke that they “took a vow of poverty” when they decided to become teachers. 

“It is a labor of love more than a labor of salary,” he said.

In 2007, the Legislature attempted to address these budget woes by passing the Mid-Level Funding Act,which was intended “to provide adequate funding for Mississippi’s community and junior colleges.” That would be accomplished by funding the community colleges at a level more than K-12 schools but less than regional colleges. After lawmakers passed the bill, the plan was to phase-in mid-level funding over a three year period.   

Then the Great Recession hit. The Legislature has never funded the community colleges at a mid-level amount, Smith said. And the community colleges have stopped asking for it. MCCB now tailors its budget priorities to funding formula increases, workforce programs, and salary raises. 

“Honestly, we never had much success with” mid-level funding, Smith said. “It seemed like it became such a large ask.”  

According to MCCB, the Legislature would have needed to appropriate an additional $159 million to the community college system to meet mid-level funding this session. That includes the extra $64 million needed to bring community college instructor salaries to a mid-point between K-12 teachers and university faculty. 

“It does make us feel less important,” said Jennifer Smith, a librarian at Hinds Community College. “We’re teachers too, and we feel like we’re just not valued by the state. We train people to go into the workforce, and so what we do is develop our state. But our state is not rewarding us for helping the state.” 

After Smith finishes cataloging books, she goes to her second job making truffles at a bakery. She said that many of her coworkers work extra jobs, like teaching additional classes at nearby universities, taking on custodial work, tutoring students, or running Instacart or Doordash deliveries. 

Without these jobs, Smith said, “we can’t really afford to live.” 

Last year, the Legislature allocated enough funds for a 1%-across-the-board raise for community college employees. In Pickett’s nine years of teaching at MCC, she said it was the first time she’d seen lawmakers give community college employees an across-the-board raise. 

Pickett, who is the president of the Mississippi Association of Community College Faculty, an advocacy group, said she appreciates the money lawmakers have given for raises. She hopes that one day lawmakers will show they’re “ready to invest.” 

“We have one of the best (community college) systems in the nation,” she said. “What would happen if we’re no longer here, to the workforce? To that big gap of students that need the community colleges?” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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