City and county school leaders came to the Orange County Board of Commissioners with one request Tuesday: Spend more money to hire and keep good teachers.
The districts took a hard look at their needs and found a lot in common, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Superintendent Tom Forcella said, such as state education cuts and competition from neighboring jurisdictions for the best employees.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is seeking a $4.5 million more in local funding in the budget. The increase includes $1.8 million more in local supplements paid to teachers, and an extra $446.76 per student.
The Orange County Schools is seeking nearly $3.8 million more in local funding in its budget, including $1.7 million for teachers; $117,000 for classified staff, such as janitors; and an extra $391 per student.
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The county currently spends $3,697.52 per student in both districts.
Charter school growth is another issue. The state requires districts to fund charter school students – potentially 271 next year in the city schools and 519 in the county – at the same level as public school students.
The boards did not make their decisions quickly, county school board Chairwoman Donna Coffey said.
“Honestly, it could have been a lot larger, because what you’re seeing are the things that were at the top of the list for us,” she said.
Focus on teachers
Gov. Pat McCrory wants a 5 percent raise for teachers this year and 3 percent for classified staff, and local supplements that shore up teacher pay have become more important, officials said. The city schools also are looking to offset a $306,000 state cut in teacher assistant funding.
The state ranks 43rd nationally in teacher pay, Orange County Superintendent Todd Wirt said, and 52 percent of the state’s teachers report having a second job. Enrollment at the UNC School of Education has fallen 30 percent since 2010.
Both districts pay supplements – starting at 10 percent of base pay in the county and 12 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro – but struggle to hire and retain teachers, they said. Annual turnover has risen to 18.5 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and 18 percent in Orange County, they said.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro couldn’t find enough qualified elementary teachers this year, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services. It’s also becoming more difficult to find teachers for math, science and exceptional students, he said.
While Alamance, Durham and counties to the west pay roughly the same or less, their cost of living and commutes are more attractive, officials said. Wake County is the biggest competition, LoFrese said, offering teachers up to $2,500 more than Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
Wake County invested $16 million investment in teacher salaries in October, he said, the first step in a five-year plan to meet the national average.
But Wake – the state’s largest district with 157,352 students – has its own challenges. District officials asked for $35.8 million more this year to ease a funding backlog: the county only pays $2,309 for each student, has seen rapid enrollment growth since 2008 and needs teachers for five new schools.
Schools comprise roughly 34 percent of Wake County’s budget this year, compared with 47.6 percent of Orange County’s budget.
Taking steps now
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board addressed some issues in April, raising the local teacher supplement next year to 16 percent.
They also are offering signing bonuses for math, science and exceptional class teachers, LoFrese said, and partnering with N.C. Central University on a $50,000 program that will reimburse 10 teacher’s assistants who complete a two-year program to become exceptional class teachers.
“The recruiting season is now, so there’s certainly no way we could stand at a table next to Wake and say, hey, come to Chapel Hill-Carrboro, we’ll give you 12 percent, and they’ll give you 18 (percent),” school board member Rani Dasi said. “It really didn’t feel like a choice for us.”
The commissioners could cut costs to spend more on education, but a property tax increase is also possible.
That could add more than 5 cents to the county’s current tax rate of 87.8 cents per $100 in assessed value. A penny on the county tax rate generates roughly $1.6 million.
The county tax bill, with a 5-cent increase, would be $2,784 for the owner of a home valued at $300,000, a $150 increase.
Another option is raising the city schools tax rate – now 20.84 cents per $100 in property value – by roughly 4.4 cents to cover that district’s request. A penny more would generate roughly $1 million. County residents do not pay a school tax.
The owner of a $300,000 home in Chapel Hill and Carrboro would pay $757.20, a $132 increase.
But the commissioners have to consider more than school needs, Chairman Earl McKee said, and there’s always the possibility of another tax increase to repay a $125 million bond proposed for school repairs and affordable housing. Voters will be asked to approve that in November.
The county could raise school impact fees, Commissioner Barry Jacobs said. The legislature gave Orange County the authority in 1987 to charge a fee for each new residential unit that is built and use the money to pay for new school construction.
The fees range from under $2,000 for a multifamily project in both districts to $11,423 for a single-family house in Chapel Hill-Carrboro. This may be the perfect time to charge more, Jacobs said, since Hillsborough is set to build a few thousand new homes.