SPRINGFIELD — Illinois last set a minimum salary for school teachers in 1980.
In the 38 years since, those salary levels have never been adjusted.
That could change if Gov. Bruce Rauner signs legislation approved by lawmakers in May that would set a minimum salary for teachers at $40,000 a year.
For proponents, the legislation is long overdue and could help attract more people into the teaching profession at a time when there is a shortage of teachers.
"I don't know why anybody wouldn't want to pay teachers more," said Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who spearheaded the effort to set a higher minimum salary. "We have a teaching shortage crisis in Illinois. It's obvious to me one of the biggest reasons we face the crisis is because we don't pay competitive wages to teachers, yet we expect teachers to solve all of the ills of society in a classroom. Either you value that or you don't."
At the same time, school districts will have to cope with whatever higher costs come with the higher minimum salary.
"I've heard from multiple school districts who see this as certainly a big financial issue for them," said Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, who voted against the bill. "Districts in rural and downstate Illinois are a lot different than places in the suburbs. I think that's the driving issue for me. We certainly want to pay teachers well, but I think it becomes very difficult when we're putting the burden on (districts) of saying here's your floor of what you have to pay people."
State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, a retired teacher, supported the effort in the House.
“I was a teacher in our local public schools for 34 years, so I truly believe that investing in good teachers and our children’s education is an investment in our future,” she said in a news release Monday.
The bill in question is Senate Bill 2892. It passed the Senate on a 37-16 vote and the House 65-47. It sets a minimum teacher salary of $40,000, but it phases it in over five years. For the next school year, which is 2018-2019, there is no change. Beginning in the 2019-20 year, the minimum salary is set at $32,076.
For the next two years, the minimum increases by $2,500 a year. Finally, in 2022-23, it goes to $40,000. After that, the minimum increases with the rate of inflation.
Currently, state law has a minimum teacher salary of $9,000 to $11,000 a year, depending on the person's level of education. A teacher with a bachelor's degree is entitled to a minimum salary of $10,000 a year. If that salary level -- which was set in 1980 -- had increased with inflation over the years, it would now be worth $32,337.
In the Waverly school district, Superintendent Dustin Day said 11 of the district's 50 staff make less than $40,000.
"It would cost me a little over $50,000 just to raise the salaries where they need to be," Day said.
However, there's a twist in Waverly. Through a contractual agreement with the teachers' union, the school district also picks up the teacher share of pension costs. That means the district will have to pay another $4,500 to cover higher pension costs dictated by the higher minimum salaries, Day said.
Moreover, he said stipends paid to teachers in the district for extra duties like coaching are tied to the rates paid to beginning teachers. The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience is $35,635.
Day acknowledged the district is "very, very financially secure."
"I'm not only concerned about my district that is financially ok," Day said. "Some of the school districts that we've all heard about that just got out of issues over the last three years, how is it going to affect them? There's no argument and nobody is going to deny that teachers in Illinois should not make more money. The question becomes how are districts going to pay for this mandate."
PORTA Superintendent Matt Brue said the district wouldn't be affected by the bill for the first couple of years because the district exceeds the minimums set out in the bill.
"It will (create issues) eventually," Brue said. "When everybody has to be at $40,000, we'll have to make some adjustments in our negotiations."
Brue said he's concerned by what he calls the "trickle-down" effect. About 20 percent of his staff makes less than $40,000 now. If they see large increases to meet the new minimum, "the remainder of the staff feels like they're obliged to get that as well," Brue said.
"I agree we should be able to (pay $40,000 minimum), but it's not that simple," Brue said. "We have to have funds to do it. We have a locally elected board that their job is to negotiate those contracts, and that's just one more power taken out of their hands."
Brue said he didn't think raising the minimum salary would make all that much difference in resolving the teacher shortage. Day, likewise, said he thinks multiple factors are causing the teacher shortage, among them less generous teacher pensions enacted several years ago that affect new teachers.
The Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance -- which includes organizations representing school boards, administrators, business officials and principals -- sent a letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner last week asking him to veto the bill.
"Though the increase is phased in, it still will be a substantial unfunded mandate on local school districts that will consume much or all of any new funding benefit school districts receive from the commitment to the new evidence-based funding formula," the letter said.
The letter also said it "will likely cause a costly ripple effect up the salary schedule for other teachers as well."
During a radio appearance last week, Rauner was asked about the bill. He did not say if he would sign or veto it, but he said "having a mandate where every school district has to do a minimum like that is very tough because there are a lot of school districts that don't have the money and can't afford it."
Manar, though, said he's still convinced the state won't fix its teacher shortage without raising the minimum salary.
"We are kidding ourselves if we believe we're going to ever address the teacher shortage issue without addressing salary," he said. "Anybody who says we will fix the teacher shortage crisis without addressing a minimum salary is not giving proper weight or magnitude to the challenge we face in this state."