At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

State budget provides raise for teachers: Critics say raise is ‘phony’

fr teacherraisesIt took nearly two months of conferencing, but a state budget bill is finally passed and signed. At the heart of that drawn-out process was education funding. Specifically, what state Republicans are hailing as the largest raise in history for North Carolina teachers.

“The priority for our budget this year was for education and to put more money in K through 12 and to get beginning teachers up to speed salary-wise,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “We tried to give everybody a raise, but our emphasis was on teachers. We believe the most important person in the school is the kids and the second most important is the teachers.”

The new budget gives beginning teachers a 7 percent jump in salary from their current levels, bringing the starting salary for North Carolina teachers from $30,000 up to $33,000. Republican lawmakers have said they want to get that starting number up to $35,000 next year. 

But this decision doesn’t exactly have educators jumping up and down. In fact, Macon County teachers are planning a demonstration in front of the county courthouse Wednesday (Aug. 13) to showcase their displeasure. 

“We’re upset about the phony pay raise,” said John deVille, a social studies teacher at Franklin High School and president of the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “They’re taking our longevity pay and giving it back to us and saying they’re giving us a raise.” 

Decades ago, the state decided that teachers who have taught in the state for 10 years or more would get some additional pay, based on a percentage of their salary, to recognize the value of their experience on the job. The percentage varies by number of years’ experience, but as a reference, a teacher who has worked in the state for 24 years would receive an additional 3.25 percent. At 25 years, that rate increases to 4.5 percent. 

The new budget counts longevity as part of a teacher’s base salary, so a teacher who is already earning a hefty longevity rate doesn’t wind up with much extra money. 

“If you’ve got 20 years or more, you’re not getting a very big raise at all,” said Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson County schools. “There’s mixed feelings out there among the troops.”

“The way one of the teachers explained it for me is it’s like telling your child you’re going to give them a raise in their allowance but you’re going to take it out of their piggybank,” added Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.


Sizing up the salary schedule

Under the new salary schedule, a teacher with 30 years of experience would only make 0.3 percent more than he did in 2013-14. 

Previously, teachers had been paid on a 37-step schedule, with each step representing one year. The new schedule shrinks that down to six steps, so that first- through fifth-year teachers earn the same salary, with pay jumping at year six and again at years 11, 16, 21 and 26. Teachers with 30 or more years of experience get the salary and longevity combo they had in 2013-14 plus a $1,000 bonus. 

“It makes it a lot simpler and allows teachers a lot less complicated pay raise,” Davis said of the new six-step scale. 

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools, isn’t so sure. 

“I don’t really see any benefits on the operational side,” Nolte said. “There may be some monetary savings they can explain, but right now we have a lot of employees who, other than a 1.2 percent pay raise right before the last big November election, they essentially make the same amount of money whether they’ve been working for one year or six or seven years. That is hard to explain to them.”

When the recession hit in 2008, legislators froze the pay scale so that an individual teacher’s salary stayed where it was in 2007-08. Under the new schedule, Nolte pointed out, teachers would have to wait again for a good several years for their next raise rather than receiving small bumps along the way, as in the old schedule. 

When deVille compares the 2007-08 schedule and the new pay plan crafted in this budget, he doesn’t even see a raise at all. 

“The day the budget got released I did a calculation,” he said, comparing his new salary to what he would be earning had his compensation increased step-by-step according to the 2007-08 schedule rather than remaining frozen at 2008-09 levels. What he found is that his new annual salary was actually $997 less than that amount. And that’s not adjusting for inflation. 

But the recession was hard for everyone, and the bottom line is that this budget increases teachers’ paychecks, Davis said. He doesn’t have much sympathy for teachers who complain that the hike isn’t big enough. 

“If they want to keep their longevity pay, they can go back to the previous pay scale. They don’t have to take their raise,” he said. “I’m getting really frustrated with these people. You can never make them happy.”

Giving teachers a boost was a big priority for the legislature, he said, and though the move to a six-step system has caused plenty of criticism, he sees it as a first move toward a more lofty goal: instituting a pay-for-performance system in which teachers whose students make the biggest gains from the beginning of the year to the end make the most money.

“A teacher that’s been there 25 or 30 years is not necessarily the best teacher,” Davis said. “Experience is valuable, but it’s not everything.”

But putting aside any debate about the pros and cons of a pay-for-performance system, Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said there’s no guarantee that such a system will be layered onto the salary schedule recently created. As of now, the dollars posted on the new schedule are the only ones teachers can count on. 

“They had not delivered any substantive administrative plan to do that,” Queen said. “That is just rhetoric.”


Questions for the future

The funding mechanism for this year’s raises are a problem in themselves, Queen said. He explained that about $25 million of the increase comes from non-recurring funding — money that won’t necessarily be there next year — and $48 million will come from eliminating 3,300 teaching assistants or 1,500 teachers statewide. 

“You can always give those that remain a raise if you cut enough of them out of the ranks,” Queen said. 

But Davis tells a different story, one in which public schools receive an additional $282 million in funding and the only expense to local school districts is matching the raises for teachers paid with local dollars. When local school districts don’t feel that state funding provides enough teachers to do the job right, they can hire their own. But when they do that, they have to cover any raise the legislature passes for state employees out-of-pocket for those funded locally. 

According to Gwen Edwards, financial officer for Jackson County Schools, the system is seeing some cuts come through for the coming school year. Transportation funding will go down 1 percent, the equivalent of $10,000, and the state will no longer fund driver education. At-risk student funding will go down 3 percent, about $30,000. 

“At this point I’ve not seen my budget increasing anywhere,” Murray, the Jackson superintendent, said. “I’ve seen the raises go into place but we still have a lot of line items that are going to get reductions.”

Another thing that’s up in the air is what the budget bill means for future school years. 

A last-minute conference addition says that schools will no longer get funding on a per-student basis, meaning that legislators would have to approve increased funding based on population growth, rather than it happening automatically according to a formula. That’s a provision that many lawmakers and education leaders are just finding out about, so no one is quite sure what it will mean down the road. 

“We really don’t know what it means until numbers arrive to us on paper,” Nolte said. “Sometimes even when the numbers arrive there are corrections that need to be done and the state will pass a technical correction bill. Until someone hands us a piece of paper with real numbers on it, we’re probably guessing.”



State releases more funds for school vouchers

After a rocky road of legislation and litigation, the school voucher program known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program got a boost from the new state budget. The budget releases an additional $840,000 to give students from low-income families help purchasing a private education. The program had initially been funded at $10 million. 

“My hope and my desire is this is not the first time we’ll be seeing these kind of increases here,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. 

The program allows scholarships of up to $4,200 for students whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced lunch. The students must be current public school students, and they can take the funds with them to use toward tuition at a private school. 

The program had met lawsuits from the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association, which claimed that it illegally provided public funds to private entities and could lead to discrimination-based admissions decisions. 

In March, N.C. Supreme Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction against the law, preventing the state from implementing the program until litigation concluded, but that was lifted in May. Now the program is moving forward, but plaintiffs are hoping to have the case heard and won before funds are released to private schools this fall. 

According to Allison, the injunction made it more challenging to get the program off the ground because administrators lost time while the program languished in purgatory. Meanwhile, applications were piling up, far over the funding limit of 2,300 students. The extra funds boost enrollment capability to 2,800. 

“It was a matter of, man this is real challenging now,” Allison said. “We have, obviously, oversubscription of the program. It will be hard to get [private] schools to register.”

The debate surrounding the voucher question is heated and complex, but as far as this new development goes, it boils down to one simple question:

“The question is where are they taking the money for the vouchers,” said Bill Nolte, Associate Superintendent of Haywood County Schools.  

According to the legislature’s conference report, the money is seated under the budget for the University of North Carolina, which holds $2.6 billion total. 

Go to top