TOPEKA — Before considering a statewide initiative to pay teachers based on their performance, the Legislature should raise overall salaries, the chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education said Wednesday.

Jim McNiece and education commissioner Randy Watson faced questions from Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, about whether to institute a merit system to boost pay for teachers determined to be high-performing.

Melcher’s idea, also promoted by Gov. Sam Brownback, met with concerns.

McNiece warned against causing “morale problems” among teachers by raising the pay of some without addressing overall compensation levels in the profession.

“What you’re going to do is make it worse,” said McNiece, a Wichita Republican and retired principal. “It’s going to be throwing gasoline on the fire.”

Watson said Kansas needs “a base salary that people feel comfortable with.”

According to state data, the average Kansas public school teacher earned $47,550 last school year — plus about $2,190 for extra duties (such as coaching) — and received benefits worth about $5,170 (primarily health insurance).

The average starting pay for teachers new to the profession was about $33,400 in 2013, according to the National Education Association. The NEA says Kansas has the 32st highest average starting pay among the 50 states and Washington D.C., and the 39th highest average overall pay.

Under current law, Kansas schools boards can choose to offer merit-based pay locally.

Melcher responded to Watson and McNiece by saying the pay systems commonly used to compensate Kansas teachers aren’t competitive because outstanding educators don’t see immediate returns on their talent. Instead, pay is based on years of experience and total post-secondary attainment.

“There are a lot of people that I’ve spoken with that enjoyed being a teacher but they didn’t feel like they could make as much teaching as they could in other vocations,” Melcher said. “I think the way that we design the compensation structure for teachers just encourages them to be there a long time, but we don’t actually reward or differentiate the effective versus ineffective ones.”

But Melcher also argued that educators may be exaggerating the situation regarding current pay levels, to make them sound worse than they are.

“It’s actually a pretty good living. I look at the two districts that I represent, and the average compensations are pretty spectacular in comparison to a lot of other vocations,” he said. “So I think a lot of times the institution itself is doing a disservice itself to the institution, by promoting how poor it is in an effort to try to get sympathy from the people to come down here with pitchforks and torches to try to extract more money out of the legislature.”

Meanwhile, Watson and McNiece urged lawmakers to address what they saw as a key problem in Kansas education: the perception among teachers that they aren’t valued in this state.

“I just don’t know of any teacher that went into the profession to make money,” Watson said. “And when they feel that they’re appreciated, money hardly ever comes up.”

“I’m not saying who’s at fault” for teachers not feeling valued, he said, but added, “When that happens, then they want to talk about money.”

McNiece said lawmakers could “change the conversation about teachers and what they do, and recognize how hard they work and applaud them first.”

Melcher responded that he believes Kansas teachers are in fact appreciated.