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Amid an ongoing teacher shortage in South Carolina, Charleston County Schools are looking to raise teacher salaries next school year. It's just a question of how much.

In early budget talks for the 2019-20 school year Monday, district finance officials showed how the district could fund a 4 percent teacher salary increase if the state Legislature requires it. Meanwhile, they also forecast tough financial decisions ahead if current spending and revenue trends continue.

The district currently pays a salary of $38,703 for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and zero years of experience — one of the highest starting rates in South Carolina. The district offers additional pay for teachers who choose to teach math in certain hard-to-fill positions at high-poverty schools.

The school district has been raising salaries aggressively since last year as part of a plan to recruit and retain teachers amid a worsening statewide teacher shortage. It set a goal of increasing all teacher salaries until the base pay reaches $40,000 in the year 2020.

Last spring, the school board took the unusual measure of setting aside $2.5 million for teacher salary increases in the 2019-20 school year. That money is still available before the budget approval process has even begun.

Charleston County's recruiting strategy seems to be working so far. The district began the 2018-19 school year with no teacher vacancies, an improvement from previous years when some unfilled teaching positions had to be covered by substitutes for weeks or even months at a time. Superintendents in other districts have been grousing about losing teachers who go to Charleston County for higher pay.

A state push

Now, a year after Charleston County started pushing the envelope on teacher pay, the Legislature is considering providing the largest statewide teacher salary bump in recent history. The current version of a $9 billion budget in the state House would increase all teacher starting salaries by at least 4 percent.

In the budget workshop Monday, Kennedy projected that the district could fund such an increase with the expected state funding in addition to the money it already has set aside for a pay hike.

The district could also start looking for money to pay extra at its schools that struggle the most. Among the proposals in his presentation Monday, Chief Human Resources Officer Bill Briggman suggested creating a "competitive compensation structure" at nine schools the state has identified for intervention, with a special emphasis on recruiting and retaining special education teachers.

One idea Briggman presented was to let certain teachers continue receiving "step" pay increases all the way up to 30 years of experience, as opposed to the current cap of 25 years' experience. Currently a teacher in Charleston County Schools with a bachelor's degree can reach a salary of $61,894 with 25 years of experience, after which the salary plateaus for the rest of her career.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, who has been calling for teacher pay raises publicly since at least 2017, underlined the seriousness of the state teacher shortage Monday. With teachers quitting the profession in droves and colleges of education not producing enough graduates to fill the gap, the teacher shortage has expanded beyond areas such as science and math that have traditionally seen shortages of talent.

"I never thought I would say this in my career, but there is a shortage across the board. There is a shortage of PE teachers," Postlewait said.

Local problems

At the same time as the district looks to pay its teachers better, district budget officials are projecting a deficit by the 2020-21 school year if current funding trends continue.

Unlike the case of the $18 million budget shortfall that walloped the district in 2015, the board received two years' notice on the looming deficit at a budget workshop Monday. Don Kennedy, chief financial and administrative officer for the district, showed board members a graph of projected expenditures eventually outpacing revenues. The deficit would amount to $5.9 million in the 2020-21 school year and $18.9 million in 2021-22.

"At some point, we will have to take some action to make sure that we bring those lines together — either reducing expenditures or figuring out how to increase revenue," Kennedy said.

Employee salaries and benefits make up the largest single portion of the district's $508 million annual operating budget, which the school board began discussing Monday for the upcoming 2019-20 school year. One of the more daunting problems on the district's horizon will be how to fund its employees' retirement plants. After years of poor performance by the state pension system, the state is requiring public employers to contribute more and more toward their employees' retirement every year. The local contribution requirement is expected to hit 23.6 percent in 2021.

At the same time, a 2006 state law known as Act 388 has been hampering the district for years by limiting its access to local property tax revenues. The law states that owner-occupied residential properties cannot be taxed for school operations. With home values on the rise, a district budget analysis showed that Charleston County Schools missed out on $61 million in revenue in the last school year alone because of Act 388.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.