Wake schools leader boldly seeks big boost in budget

March 19, 2014 

Anyone who thought the new Wake County schools superintendent might take it slow and easy in his first months on the job now knows better. Jim Merrill took over the state’s largest school system in June and clearly has been doing his homework.

What he learned was that the county needs to do something to make a difference for its teachers. Now, he is using his first budget proposal to seek a 3.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for school employees. The state provides most school funding, but Wake commissioners allocate the county’s share of what’s needed, and Merrill is asking the commissioners for an additional $39 million to raise pay.

The superintendent wants to join in the push to raise North Carolina’s teacher pay to the national average, starting with Wake. The average teacher salary in Wake County is $45,512; the national average is $56,383.

North Carolina’s national rank is an embarrassing 46th in the nation. And though Gov. Pat McCrory has talked about salary boosts for beginning teachers, who make around $30,000, and promises he wants raises for veteran teachers as well, Republicans don’t have many specifics about how they’ll deliver.

Wake County is a good place to set an example. Over the past five years, the school system has gained 15,000 students, and more are coming. The county has a cross-section of students in terms of rural and urban, affluent, middle class and poor, with well-educated parents and poorly educated ones.

All that presents considerable challenges for teachers.

In addition, the county is in the middle of the booming Research Triangle where good educations can lead to good jobs in the future.

Merrill is nothing if not bold and ambitious for Wake’s schools and, more accurately, for Wake’s students. He likes a goal of having Wake County make the “highest local investment for students in North Carolina.”

There have been many signs that county residents agree. They’ve supported bond issue after bond issue for schools, including one for $810 million in October. Most everybody believes in the fundamental principle that public education is a noble mission and, yes, an obligation, a covenant, with children and their families. Effective teachers are the linchpin of that covenant, and they deserve wages that say we recognize that.

The school board must approve Merrill’s proposal, but members seem likely to support him. The commissioners’ board, on the other hand, is dominated by Republicans who have clashed with the school board and who tend to resist big-budget ideas that might require even a small property tax increase. Wake County hasn’t raised its tax rate in at least five years.

Let’s hope commissioners can see the virtue of investing in public schools, not just maintaining them. The growth in this county is going to test the schools, and the last thing the county needs is a severe teacher shortage. Even considering the many things about the area that make it a prime place to settle, qualified teachers simply are not going to work for second-rate pay that will make it difficult for them to support themselves, much less their families.

Investing this money in our children, and in the county’s future, should be something on which Republicans and Democrats can agree and join together to support. County leaders must choose to support Merrill’s request and join him in making the case for it to the public. The proposal is brave, but it is time to be brave.

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