Wake to hike teacher-pay supplement to highest in NC; critics question size and source

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2014 

Teachers and some supporters demonstrate on Garner Road near North Garner Middle School in protest of state and county budget policies they say hurt education.

KYLE JAHNER — kjahner@newsobserver.com

Correction: This story about a meeting of the Wake County Board of Commissioners incorrectly said that speaker Russell Capps suggested Wake County schools could reduce pay for some higher-paid employees to pay some teachers more. Capps said some Wake schools employees make more than $90,000 a year and that the problem is a “pileup” of teachers whose salaries have been raised little or not at all since they were hired.

RALEIGH -- Wake County will raise its teacher-pay supplement from the second-highest in the state to the highest, the county’s Board of Commissioners decided Monday.

But instead of granting the school board’s request for $29.1 million for 3.5 percent teacher raises funded by a tax increase, the commission would most likely propose paying for a much smaller increase, by using the Board of Education’s own fund balance.

At a heated, packed public meeting Monday night, members of the public, including many teachers, questioned the hike they’d receive under the commission proposal, saying they needed the much larger increase proposed by the school board.

John Burns, a parent of three from Raleigh, said the approximately $250 extra that would result from increasing the local supplement could easily be consumed by school supplies that teachers often buy from their own pockets.

Elizabeth Brown, recently named Broughton High School’s valedictorian, said she will attend Duke University in the fall. When she graduates, she said, she might think twice about moving back to Wake County.

“When I start a family, do I want to bring them back here?” Brown said. “If all the great teachers I had are leaving?”

Shortly after the start of the commissioners’ regular meeting Monday afternoon, Chairman Phil Matthews introduced an agenda item that said, “The Board of Commissioners recognizes that a high achieving school system is a critical component of the economic vitality and quality of life of Wake County and represents a return on the taxpayers’ investment of property taxes.”

Most public school teachers are paid by the state. But counties can supplement their pay, and Wake County now pays an average supplement of $6,204 per teacher. The system with the highest supplement is Chapel Hill-Carrboro, with a $6,441 supplement, or $237 more than Wake’s.

Christine Kushner, chairwoman of the Wake County school board, said after the meeting that the use of one-time money from the school board’s fund balance couldn’t hold up in the long term and would deplete the fund.

Kushner also said she was concerned about depleting the school system’s fund balance, leaving schools with too little cushion.

“The Board of Commissioners desires to raise the teacher supplement to the highest in the state by taking appropriate, responsible actions for the fiscal year 2015 budget,” Matthews said, reading from the proposal. He suggested directing the county manager to work with the county schools superintendent to “identify alternatives and strategies, both short- and long-term, from within County and/or WCPSS funding resources to increase the locally funded teacher supplement.”

Commissioner Paul Coble made a motion that the board direct Jim Hartmann, the county manager, to work with Jim Merrill, the schools superintendent, to find a way to increase the supplement – without raising taxes. The board voted unanimously to do so. Hartmann is to present options for funding the increase at the board’s budget session next week.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward asked how much the supplement would increase. Matthews said the amount will be determined in the discussions between Hartmann and Merrill, and that more details will emerge.

More than 125 people came out Monday night to the Board of Commissioners’ second public hearing, and dozens of them signed up to speak, mostly to convince board members of the importance of giving teachers a raise, even if it means raising taxes.

Many were current or former teachers.

David Corsetti, a science teacher at Broughton High School, said he was at the meeting on behalf of 70 of his colleagues. Corsetti said the increased supplement would be gratifying, but would not be enough to slow the exodus of teachers from the county’s schools.

“We have worked so hard and received so little for so long,” Corsetti told the board. He said county residents “are more able and willing to pay a property tax increase to fund a school pay raise than you probably realize.”

His remarks brought cheers and applause from others in the audience.

Proposal a surprise to some

The county is preparing its 2015 budget, which it plans to adopt June 16. As part of the process, the school board requested a $39.3 million funding increase, including the $29.1 million for a 3.5 percent pay raise for all school employees.

The budget that Hartmann recommended to the board of commissioners last month would instead give the schools a $10.2 million increase. Hartmann said at the time the county would wait and see whether state legislators would approve a pay increase as proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Legislators have not yet settled on a plan.

So it came as some surprise to Democrats on the Board of Commissioners when Republicans added the proposal for the increased supplement to Monday’s meeting.

“I’m not going to question anyone’s motives,” Democrat James West said. “All’s well that ends well. At least we’re making a start. A small start. But I think it’s in the right direction.”

It’s not clear where the money would come from to fund the increased supplement. Matthews’ proposal suggested Hartmann look at county and school board money, but outside the meeting Hartmann said that, “We’re just looking at the school board’s fund balance right now.”

All but about $6 million of the schools’ fund balance already is dedicated.

‘Stem the tide’

Kushner, the school board chairwoman, contacted after the meeting, said that while there might be enough money in the fund balance to pay for a small increase for one year, “A fund balance is one-time funding. I don’t think a fund balance is a sustainable way to increase a recurring salary supplement.”

During the meeting, the board held its first public hearing on the proposed county budget, and more than a dozen people took the opportunity to speak.

Lee Quinn, a history teacher at Broughton High School, asked the board to approve the schools’ full funding request in order to “stem the tide” of teachers leaving their jobs because of insufficient pay.

One speaker, former state legislator Russell Capps, said not all Wake County teachers are underpaid.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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