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Top Miss. teachers lobby to keep pay supplement

Tammy Bragg went through a rigorous process of completing projects and passing exams to become a nationally certified teacher, and the extra academic credential entitles her to a $6,000 annual pay supplement.

On Tuesday, instead of enjoying one of her first days of summer break, Bragg joined about three dozen other nationally certified teachers at the Mississippi Capitol. They lobbied legislators to make sure the pay supplement doesn’t get cut as lawmakers look for ways to piece together a tight state budget.

“The bottom line is, we went over and above to make ourselves better,” said Bragg, a 3rd grade teacher at Madison County’s Highland Elementary School.

Budget writers showed few signs of progress Tuesday as the full House and Senate reconvened after a 2 1/2-week recess. With the state fiscal year starting July 1, school administrators and state agency directors want to know how much money they’ll receive so they can make basic decisions such as how many employees they’ll have on the payroll.

Mississippi’s budget for the coming year will be just under $5 billion. That’s a slight decrease from the current year’s budget, because the slumping economy has caused a decline in state tax collections.

About a dozen negotiators from the House and Senate have been unable to set aside differences on key issues, including whether to put $60 million into a reserve fund that could be tapped in January 2011, when federal stimulus money disappears.

No negotiations took place over the long Memorial Day weekend, and House leaders said the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, was to blame because he was unavailable to work.

“I’m frustrated on behalf of the citizens of this state,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Tuesday.

Nunnelee told the Senate on Tuesday that work is being done on budgets for some of the smaller state agencies such as the Board of Nursing and the Board of Medical Licensure.

“I don’t want to give anybody the impression that nothing is going on,” Nunnelee said.

At one point, about a dozen nationally certified teachers saw Nunnelee and surrounded him in one of the Capitol’s marble hallways to express their concerns about possibly losing their pay supplement. Nunnelee told the teachers lawmakers will set aside money for the supplement.

“You are going to get it,” he said. “And nobody has ever said otherwise.”

Nunnelee also took a jab at school administrators who have suggested the money might be in danger.

“I think they’ve got teachers stirred up for no reason,” Nunnelee told the teachers.

Deborah Martin, who teaches music to 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in Lafayette County, said her district has offered her and the other nationally certified teachers two contracts for the coming year. One is a regular teaching contract. The other is a separate contract for the $6,000 in national certification pay.

Martin said she’s worried having the pay supplement in a separate contract means the money might not be paid. Martin said she grew up in Illinois and has been in Mississippi 16 years. She said the extra pay because of the national certification “made a difference for me to be able to come back here to Mississippi to teach.”

State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds said in an interview that several districts do separate contracts for the national certification pay supplement, and several do everything in one contract. Either way is acceptable, he said.