Lawmakers, Easley clash over raises

Staff WriterJune 17, 2008 

  • For his budget proposal, Gov. Mike Easley considered the national average to be $49,520 for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and 15 years of experience. That number came from the National Education Association. The state's salary for a teacher with the same qualifications is $46,319.

  • Teachers are paid differently from other state employees. The state's schedule for base salary provides for higher pay with every additional year of experience a teacher has. Teachers also benefit from incentives and bonuses as wells as supplements from some counties that can average $5,000 more. The starting salary for a teacher freshly graduated with a bachelor's degree is $29,750, not including incentives and supplemental pay. A teacher with a bachelor's degree and 30 years of experience makes a base salary of $52,080.

  • No. The salary scale is designed to reward teachers for sticking with the profession through five years, so raises are higher as teachers approach that level of experience. Gov. Mike Easley has argued that new teachers need high starting salaries to help attract job applicants to the state. Others say the state should create more incentives for high- performing teachers or those who teach math and science.

Dave Walsh is paid $39,500 a year to teach math and science to middle schoolers. Wendell Powell is paid $33,000 a year to keep an eye on rival gangs in prison.

Which service is more valuable? Do the men make enough money? Should one get a bigger pay raise than the other?

Such questions underpin a debate between the legislature and Gov. Mike Easley as they try to assemble a state budget for the fiscal year than begins July 1. The Senate joined the fray Monday when leaders said that they, like the members of the House, would give teachers smaller pay raises than those proposed by Easley. Other state employees, in the House and Senate plans, would get larger pay raises than Easley proposed.

Powell, 32, is sympathetic to the concerns of teachers. After all, he has two girls in elementary school and he wants them to have well-paid teachers. But Powell, a correction officer who works in the gang unit at Wake Correctional Center, says his job is valuable, too.

"If we had to trade shoes for a day, I don't know how many teachers would want to work on death row," Powell said. "We all serve the state and the counties in different capacities, and it's all vital."

Meanwhile Walsh, a six-year veteran who will teach math and science at Moore Square Middle School in Raleigh next year, may have to choose between his passion for teaching and a salary he can live on. He and his wife are thinking of having children in the next year or so.

"It's a job where if you don't like it, it's not really worth the pay," Walsh said. "I prefer right now to stay in the classroom, but family comes first."

Raises are one of the biggest issues facing the legislature. The state Senate began rolling out its draft budget on Monday. Majority Leader Tony Rand said the raises in the Senate proposal, likely to be voted on later this week, are the same as those in a budget proposal the House approved earlier this month: 3 percent for teachers and 2.75 percent for other state employees.

That puts the House and the Senate, controlled by Democrats, at odds with Easley, the state's two-term Democratic governor. Easley has proposed larger raises for teachers and smaller increases for other state employees.

Easley has made pay raises a centerpiece of his final budget proposal, saying the state's future depends on well-educated workers. Easley also says that he and lawmakers promised three years ago to raise teachers' pay to the national average and that his proposal to raise teachers' pay by an average of 7 percent would fulfill that promise.

Legislative leaders say the state can do only so much in a struggling economy. "This is not a pass-fail test," Rand said. "This is a do-the-best-you-can test."

A 1 percent raise for non-teacher employees would cost the state $73 million a year, said Dan Gerlach, a senior budget advisor to Easley. A 1 percent increase for teachers and principals would cost $57 million. The budget is about $21 billion.

The raises would not be based on merit. For state employees, they would be across the board. For teachers, they would be based on experience and education.

In 2005, Easley and legislative leaders announced a four-year plan to raise teachers' salaries to a national average, as calculated by the N.C. Association of Educators, which lobbies for teachers. Easley says that the state's ability to compete depends on the quality of education available to the children who will make up the work force.

The plan was to raise salaries 5 percent a year. But other states have been more aggressive, and it would take an average raise of 7 percent this year to meet the average, Gerlach said. Easley's advisers say $49,520 is the average for a teacher with 15 years of experience and a bachelor's degree.

The state now pays such a teacher $46,319.

The gap seemed wider when the legislature rejected a tax hike on cigarettes that Easley proposed to pay for teachers' raises.

Even if Easley got what he wanted on teachers' pay -- which seems increasingly unlikely -- the base salary for a just-graduated teacher with a bachelor's degree would rise from $29,750 to $32,610. That's a 10 percent raise, probably not enough to draw teachers to the state from across the country. But the money would help said Eddie Davis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the largest education group in the state.

"For a lot of people, $3,000 might not be that much money," he said, "but with the gas prices and in the lives of people who are getting their first jobs, $3,000 makes a whole lot of sense."

Easley has said the proposed teachers' raises would send a clear signal about the state's priorities.

"Our kids aren't below average," he said. "Their ambitions aren't below average, and our teachers can't be compensated below average, either."

Dividing teachers from the rest of state employees has been a successful political tactic, said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which represents 55,000 employees and retirees. Cope said it has been difficult to get people to recognize other government workers' contributions as readily as those of teachers.

Powell, the correction officer in Wake County, said he wants more state residents to realize how hard state employees work.

"For what you're getting for the money you're spending as a taxpayer, you're getting quality," Powell said.

ben.niolet@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4521

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