Wake schools superintendent wants $39 million for teacher salaries

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2014 

Wake County School Board

Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher, left, talks with Superintendent Jim Merrill in a February 2014 file photo.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Wake County schools Superintendent Jim Merrill is asking county leaders for a $39 million increase in funding, much of it to increase employee pay 3.5 percent across the board.

The pay request, he said Tuesday, would support a goal to raise teacher pay to the national average.

Merrill told the school board he wants the Wake County Board of Commissioners to provide $365.7 million for the 2014-15 fiscal year – an increase of more than 10 percent from the $326.6 million that the school system now receives.

It’s time, Merrill said, to provide funding to make up for years in which the recession has slowed growth in the budget.

“During the last few years, this school board has been modest in its requests for funding and support, understandably so during a significantly down economy,” Merrill said. “It’s my perception that this school system has lost its once great standing, both in North Carolina and in the nation. We must return to that level of academic success, prominence, creativity and innovation.”

This is the first budget that Merrill has presented since being hired by the school board in June.

Merrill said the budget is the first step toward his goal for Wake County “to have the highest local investment for students in North Carolina.” He said that would require raising per-pupil spending by around $400, an increase in local dollars of more than $60 million during the next five years.

Merrill said his other long-term goal is to raise Wake’s average teacher salary of $45,512 to the national average of $56,383 – an increase he said would require an additional $130 million in local dollars by 2020.

Wake is North Carolina’s largest school system, with more than 152,000 students; it has gained nearly 15,000 students in the past five years. During that period, county commissioners have maintained the same property tax rate.

Merrill’s budget, which still has to be approved by the school board, calls for the county to contribute $2,238 per student – a $189 increase from last year’s budget. But school leaders note that it’s only $60 per student more than the district received in the 2008-09 budget.

“We cannot accept that this current lower level of service and funding is the ‘new normal,’ ” Merrill said. “We must begin addressing the economic shortages that this school system has been struggling with since the 2008-09 school year.”

$23.5M more revenue expected

Merrill’s proposal comes at a time when the county’s Board of Commissioners, which has to sign off on the schools budget, is hoping it can reduce the size of the property tax increase that will come from voters’ approval of an $810 million school construction bond referendum in October.

At the same time, county departments are lobbying for their share of the $23.5 million in increased funding that commissioners have available in the fiscal year that begins July 1, without raising taxes.

Phil Matthews, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the size of the schools’ request for an increase is a surprise.

“It’s taken me back a little,” Matthews said in an interview Tuesday night. “I’ve got to look at the material.”

Merrill’s proposed overall 2014-15 operating budget is $1.37 billion, about $45 million more than the amount in the current fiscal year. The state provides the majority of Wake’s funding, but the county funding often gets much of the attention.

It would cost $29.1 million to cover Merrill’s proposed 3.5 percent raise for all of the district’s 18,000 employees. Merrill notes in the budget that county employees have gotten raises totaling 6.75 percent the last three years, while school employees received one raise of 1.2 percent.

Merrill acknowledged that Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed raising salaries for beginning teachers but said that “we need to send a strong local message to our employees of their worth and importance.”

Larry Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, praised Merrill for the budget.

“They’re not asking for the world,” he said. “The superintendent is asking for a reasonable and necessary increase.”

More for pre-K, literacy

Other items in Merrill’s budget include providing:

• $1.8 million more to expand the number of students in pre-kindergarten programs and to hire additional personnel to work with the children.

• $1.7 million to high-poverty elementary schools,

• $930,652 to hire literacy coaches to help teachers work with their students.

• $609,705 to continue a multiyear program to hire one position at each school to help with technology issues.

• $304,852 to hire intervention coordinators at high schools where the graduation rate is below 80 percent. The state used to fund those positions.

• $150,000 for Knightdale schools to plan to improve academics following the recommendations of the Knightdale Area Education Work Group, formed to look at education issues in the community.

• $107,000 to start a full-language Chinese immersion program at Stough Elementary School in Raleigh and a dual-language immersion program at Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale.

Starting this fall with kindergarten, Stough students would have the option of spending most of the day taking classes in Mandarin Chinese while Hodge Road students would be able to spend half the day taking their classes in Spanish.

To help balance the budget, administrators propose using $30 million from its fund balance, colloquially known as its rainy day fund.

Merit pay would end with grant

But Merrill’s budget would eliminate the district’s use of merit pay for teachers.

For the past few years, Wake has used federal Race to the Top grant funding to provide additional resources such as merit pay for teachers and additional positions for five high-poverty elementary schools. Merrill isn’t proposing continuing the program when the grant money runs out at the end of this school year.

The program was begun when Republicans who backed merit pay were in the majority on the school board. Members of the new Democratic majority have been critical of the use of merit pay.

Merrill’s proposal was praised by school board members, who said that the public shouldn’t focus on the size of the increase but on how it’s much lower than the rate of inflation growth since 2008. But other board members acknowledged it’s a big increase.

“It is a very bold budget, but it’s also at the same time a common-sense budget,” school board member Keith Sutton said. “Let’s make no mistake about it. A $39 million increase is bold but needed.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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