North Carolina budget means teacher raises, cuts to central office

By: By Chrysta Carroll - Bladen Journal

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators recently passed the much-anticipated and hotly debated budget, which had as a major source of contention efforts to right the capsized ship of teacher pay.

Under the new budget, most teachers will see some increase. North Carolina teachers will receive an average of 3.3 percent raise for the 2017-18 year, followed by an average 9.6 percent raise in the 2018-19 fiscal year, when compared to 2016-17 numbers. Teachers with 17-24 years of experience will see the largest increases. Starting teacher pay will remain at $35,000 plus any bonuses and state or local supplements, the latter of which is 4 percent in Bladen County.

At least one local teacher is hopeful, but also leery, of the increase.

“It seems like they always throw something else in there, like an increase in insurance rates, so we never really see an increase,” said West Bladen High School exceptional children’s teacher Brooke McMichael. “We really are at the mercy of the state with these increases, but teachers go into this profession knowing that it will never be very profitable.”

Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the proposal, calling for higher incentives for educators. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the plan on June 28 — in favor of, among other things, his more generous 10 percent increase in teacher salary over two years — saying the entire budget “lacks vision” for education and the economy. He and fellow Democratic legislators complained many teachers would only see a $300 raise with an additional $385 bonus.

The next day, the Republican-controlled General Assembly overrode Cooper’s veto.

North Carolina ranks 41st in the nation when it comes to teacher pay, and even under Cooper’s proposed budget plan, it would take until 2022 for North Carolina to pass the national average. Last year marked the first time the average teacher’s pay, including bonuses and supplements, topped $50,000 statewide, but educators were outspoken against the improvements, saying the ship was still listing hard to starboard after a decade’s worth of pay freezes, stolen longevity pay, and negligible raises.

“What concerns me is the benefits that could go away, like retirement,” McMichael explained. “That is a major perk for state employees. It saddens me, too, that we are losing great teachers to other states because of our lack of competitive salaries.”

The plan perpetuates incentives for certain teachers. Graduates of an approved educator preparation program will receive a salary supplement in line with the “A” salary schedule if they work in a low-performing school, teach special education or STEM, or are considered a highly qualified graduate.

If teachers aren’t happy with efforts to right the ship, however, administrators will be even less enthusiastic, as lawmakers appear to have put centralized administration in their crosshairs. While the budget scales back the 25-percent budget cuts to DPI proposed by the Senate, what remains is a 6-percent reduction to the department in 2017-18 and another 13.9-percent cut in 2018-19. The $10.5-million, two-year slash doesn’t include $900,000 for 11 positions legislators intend to do away with.

Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor spoke about the impact to local school systems.

“There’s a tremendous amount of partnership between districts and DPI, and you’re talking almost a third of the staff,” he commented. “When you have an issue with licensure, now the wait time may be three to four months to get that done. When you talk about allotments and funding, who will answer the questions we may have? A lot of work goes through the Department in terms of vetting reports to the federal Department of Education, and the more people you take out of that, the longer it takes for work to be done.”

The cuts to administration come at a time when critics allege wasteful spending at DPI and decry the need for greater financial transparency. Critics pushed for, and received, the inclusion of $1 million for a commissioned audit of the agency, another $1 million the following year based on savings they anticipate the audit will produce, and a one-time allotment of $29 million to update the accounting at DPI.

If lawmakers’ intent is to trim the fat, they’re wielding their knives at the local level as well. The budget’s approval means a 7-percent decrease in the state’s allotment for central offices in 2017-18, followed by an 11-percent slash the following year. For Bladen County, a nearly one-fifth loss over two years could mean big changes.

“What that means is more of what we’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years — reduced staffing and greater work for district staff,” said Taylor. “Already overworked district offices get smaller, or the local budget burden gets greater. You can’t put 26 hours of work into eight hours and think it will be done effectively, and if you don’t have the opportunity to reduce staff, you have to put more local funding towards it.”

Taylor predicted the long-term effect of cuts to centralized administration, saying highly qualified and effective leaders won’t aspire to move to the district office, because they see a high level of work with a low salary.

“That’s when your leadership begins to atrophy,” he remarked.

While Bladen County already has plans to dissolve and disburse the responsibilities of a director of transportation retiring this year, netting an $80,000 savings, it’s still facing another big cut next year. The timing couldn’t be worse, as it coincides with the district’s plan to request $38 million from the Bladen County commissioners for, among other things, the construction of a new K-8 school in Tar Heel and consolidation throughout the county.

Taylor has maintained that Bladen County voters need to step up to the plate and show they value education, but residents have repeatedly nixed a sales tax referendum that would benefit education.

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll

Bladen Journal