Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday defended his claim that average teacher salaries now exceed $50,000, and he downplayed concerns that teachers are leaving for other states that pay more.
McCrory touted teacher pay raises during a visit to Riverwood Middle School in Clayton, where he toured classrooms and held a private meeting with teachers. As teacher salaries continue to be a major issue in the governor’s race, Democrats have said describing the average as $50,000 is “misleading.”
Since signing this year’s state budget, McCrory has frequently said he has raised the average teacher salary to $50,000. That figure includes salary supplements that local school districts add to teachers’ base pay; it’s also an estimate because the exact number of veteran teachers returning to the classroom this year isn’t yet finalized.
The state’s teacher pay scale this year only offers salaries above $50,000 to teachers with 25 years of experience or more. Teachers with 20 years of experience got a 3.2 percent raise to $48,000, while starting teacher pay remains at $35,000.
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“Believe me, we’ve had accountants look at this and it’s accurate,” McCrory said during a brief news conference at the school. “I’ve clearly stated that not all teachers make ($50,000). ... All I do know is teachers are making more money now than they were in the past. Is it enough? We’re going to try to get better.”
McCrory also criticized claims of a teacher turnover rate of 13.8 percent – a number his opponents say shows North Carolina’s low pay is prompting teachers to move to other states. Nationally, the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay during the 2014-2015 school year, before some of the raises took effect.
The governor’s education adviser, Catherine Truitt, said the 13.8 percent figure is misleading because it includes teachers who have retired, died or moved to another school district within the state. Exclude those categories, she said, and “you’re left with a turnover rate of 4.1 percent” who leave the state or the teaching profession.
“About 1.1 percent of our teachers leave the state (for teaching jobs), and about double that come into the state,” Truitt said. “We are actually a net importer of teachers in North Carolina.”
McCrory also discouraged use of the 13.8 percent figure. “We were counting teachers who were going to charter schools or just transferring to the school next door,” he said.
Reporters covering the governor’s visit to Riverwood Middle were not allowed to attend the event billed as a “roundtable discussion” with teachers on pay and other education issues.
McCrory said the event needed to be private “out of respect for the teachers so there would be no pressure whatsoever. I told them everything they tell me is informal, off the record.”
The campaign of McCrory’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, blasted the decision to have a closed-door meeting. It issued a news release saying the secrecy was due to McCrory’s pay claims being “publicly disputed,” including criticism from a teacher at a similar event at a Catawba County school.
Just one of the teachers who attended the meeting was made available to reporters afterward: Caroline Daily, an eighth-grade teacher who serves on the Governor’s Task Force on Safer Schools.
“Do we have more progress to make?” she said of teacher pay. “Absolutely. But I really feel Gov. McCrory is helping us out and making that better for us.”
After the meeting, reporters joined McCrory as he toured several classrooms at Riverwood and fielded questions from students. Asked about his favorite book, the governor named George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” which he said he recently re-read.
“Sadly, some parts of that book have come to fruition, like Big Brother and purging of ideas,” he said.
While he didn’t give the students any specifics on that comparison, McCrory recently described the opposition to House Bill 2 as “like Big Brother is all of a sudden descended upon our state in a very coordinated political way.”