As the result of recent state and local decisions, our school districts – Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) and Orange County Schools (OCS) – are asking for an $8 million budget increase for teacher pay.
Increasing local supplements for teacher pay is long overdue since the state has been shortchanging teachers for years. Even with the 5 percent pay increase proposed this year by the legislature, North Carolina does not pay teachers enough to ensure nationally ranked schools.
Last year, Wake County raised the bar. They raised local supplements and committed to bring teacher’s salaries to the national average. Wake now has the highest-paid teachers in the state, and it’s harder than ever for CHCCS and OCS to recruit and retain qualified teachers.
The issue of teacher pay is not the only problem facing our public schools. There’s aging facilities, declining enrollment, and a persistent achievement gap. Plus our schools now serve thousands of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches and place greater demands on the social services that are delivered in school.
The challenges are unprecedented – but, unlike Wake, Orange County and our school leaders have done little to prepare for the ongoing uncertainty and inevitable impacts.
School leaders want the county to fund the pay increase from the county’s $200-plus million budget. That means raising taxes or giving the schools a bigger piece of the fiscal pie.
By policy, the commissioners give schools 48.1 percent of the county budget, and keep 52 percent for county priorities such as social services, seniors citizens and law enforcement. This year, the county proposed an additional $2.6 million for schools – substantially less than the $8 million that they are seeking.
Politically, teacher pay is already being pitted against seniors, housing and other high priorities, without distinguishing between “wants” and “needs.” No one wants to shortchange essentials, but it does seem reasonable to shift funds from the lower-priority county items to high-priority school items. What if teachers were paid first, and budget debates centered on more recycling, more rural parks, and nicer county offices? If we insist on everything at once, it means even higher taxes and fees. Right now, public education is in serious trouble.
It’s possible that the school districts can help – especially since per-pupil spending is high and both districts ran large surpluses last year. They too would have to distinguish between “needs vs. wants.” That means paying teachers first, and debating lower-priority expenses.
It’s worth noting that last year Wake County proudly gave their schools 52 percent of the county budget – but it’s not an arbitrary target. It’s the result of rigorous and transparent fiscal policy where funding goes to high priorities wherever they happen to fall (school or county). Plus Wake leaders avoid overspending on commodities, like office buildings and convenience centers.
Maybe this year can be different. Maybe leaders can make teacher pay a priority, and keep teachers out of the political limelight. Let the budget debate focus on “wants” not “needs.” Better yet, let the “wants” wait – at least until our public schools are stable and thriving.
Bonnie Hauser lives in Orange County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org