Point of View

It's time for Wake to combat NC education atrocities at the county level

March 18, 2014 

Everyone, not just people with kids in school, should realize how bad the situation is becoming in public education. The clear sign of reaching the bottom was the recent proposal by Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders to solve the teacher pay debacle by raising the pay for newer teachers over the next two years so that teachers with one to nine years of experience will all be making the same thing: $35,000 per year. Really! How could someone pass up that opportunity? Is there any job in our society that offers that kind of incentive?

Of course not. It would eliminate any chance of hiring anyone with any brains or ability, much less those ceded the responsibility of educating tomorrow’s workers and leaders. If that does not prove that our current state government leadership has no interest in improving education, much less teacher pay, then just look to their other actions last year: eliminating the highly successful Teaching Fellows program, removing 10 percent pay supplements for master’s degrees, eliminating a teacher’s right for a hearing upon dismissal (called “tenure” in this state for some reason) and using the savings for a big tax cut for individuals making more than $100,000!

I am selfish and would rather fix the problems in Wake County now than wait for our state leaders to come to their senses. So what are the biggest challenges for Wake County Public Schools? Teacher pay, the graduation rate and the poor performance on tests by thousands of students, many of whom are African-American, Hispanic, poor or immigrant and don’t speak English well.

With 50,000 students needing help to pass tests, let’s give WCPSS through the county budget appropriation $800 per student per year for more time on task through tutoring or whatever will work for getting those students to graduate on time. That’s $40 million, which would make a significant difference in graduation rates and test performance.

For educators, let’s increase the Wake County supplement by what equates to a 3 percent raise every year for the next five years, which would move the state’s $35,000 up to $40,500. That’s not exactly good pay, but it is better, and teachers are worth it. That averages about $1,000 per year increase for every teacher. With about 11,000 teachers that is an $11 million per year increase.

I feel like I am spending real money here. Let’s see: We’ll need $51 million in the first year in new ongoing revenue and then $11 million additional every year for the continued teacher raises. County government is not like the feds – it cannot print its own money and worry about inflation later. It has to get it from us, primarily through property taxes and sales taxes. So that $51 million would be about 4 cents in a property tax rate increase (7 percent) or a 1/2-cent increase in the sales tax rate. By state law, the county can raise the sales tax rate only 1/4-cent for education so it would have to be in conjunction with a 2-cent property tax hike.

Our county commissioners have been so tight with our dollars over the last 20 years that we have lower tax rates by far than every comparable urban county in North Carolina (Wake - $0.534; Durham - $0.774; Forsyth - $0.716; Guilford - $0.780; Mecklenburg - $0.815). It should be no surprise that Wake County per pupil funding is way below others.

So our elected leaders could fund significant improvements in teacher pay and student achievement and still have the lowest tax rate by far versus all other comparable urban counties. Sounds good. But it would mean a tax increase, and that has been taboo in this county for years – especially in election years.

I hope our county commissioners will have the common sense and integrity to do the right thing right now, and maybe we will reward them for that with re-election. Or maybe, they will proudly proclaim that they didn’t raise our taxes – again. Or maybe it is time for the anti-tax pendulum to swing back to the middle.

Thomas B. Oxholm of Knightdale was a member of the Wake County Board of Education, 1999-2003.

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