Patrick Hayes was hardly an imposing presence as he hunched over a lectern at the Charleston County School District board of trustees meeting Monday night, reading a prepared speech on the need to restore annual teacher salary increases. He was plainspoken and calm, but the response from the above-capacity crowd in the conference room was electric, including murmurs of assent throughout his speech and a standing ovation as he entered and exited.

Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary School, previously made the same case to the state legislature in February, when he traveled to Columbia with House Minority Leader Harry Ott, a Calhoun County Democrat. Under state law, all school districts are required to pay their teachers according to the State Minimum Salary Schedule, a table that dictates baseline salaries for teachers according to their credentials and guarantees a pay raise for every additional year of experience up to 22 years. But in 2010 and 2011, during tight budget years, the state legislature allowed school districts to opt out of the “step increases.” In all, 17 of the state’s 83 school districts suspended step pay for both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years. Charleston County was one of them.

“Our lives have moved on, but our salaries have not,” Hayes said Monday night. “Others profited during boom times when we were stuck on the schedule, as agreed. But when hard times came, that deal was null and void.

“Teacher Appreciation Week is coming,” he added in conclusion. “This year, don’t say it with a card. Don’t say it with flowers. Say it in the budget.”

While Hayes is unsure what the impact of his February visit to the Statehouse will be, he says the school board has the power to act quickly and restore step pay increases. While teacher salaries were not on the agenda Monday night, Superintendent Nancy McGinley has said she wants to catch teachers up on the last two years’ worth of raises, at an estimated cost of $12.2 million in the first year. She will make a proposal to that effect at the May 29 school board meeting, but the decision will be left to the nine-member board of trustees.

“I feel we’re in a fight for human talent, and if we don’t stay competitive with our surrounding districts, we’re going to see our best teachers get recruited away,” McGinley said after the meeting. Nearby districts Berkeley and Dorchester 2 both denied teachers their step increases for the 2010-2011 school year but restored them for 2011-2012. Dorchester 4 maintained step increases for both years.

In addition to his in-person political advocacy, Hayes started an online petition in February titled “Restore Teacher Salaries” that has so far garnered more than 9,100 signatures. He estimates that 4,000 of the signatures are from Charleston County.