Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Teacher pay, a community value and responsibility

contributed

The Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) is requesting $4.5 million in additional funding from the county this year. The additional funding, if granted, will supplement state allocations that pay the bulk of teacher salaries. As most of you probably already know, current state allocations are inadequate to recruit and retain the teachers needed for our schools to remain competitive. The stories of other states poaching our experienced teachers are rampant.

To pay for the additional funding requested by both CHCCS and Orange County schools, the Orange County Commissioners would need to increase the property tax rate by 5 cents per $100 of assessed value or cut spending in other areas of the overall schools and/or county budget. This funding request is in addition to the $125 million bond referendum for school repairs and renovations that voters will see on the ballot in November.

Before I go any further, let me state unequivocally that I believe teachers should be paid as professionals. A North Carolina teacher with a masters’ degree and five years of service makes a base salary of $40,150 plus whatever local supplement is offered (12 percent in CHCCS). That is not a professional level salary in my opinion.

At the same time, I also agree with the county commissioners’ decision several years ago to cap education funding at just under 50 percent of the overall county budget. As a point of comparison, the $4.5 million request by CHCCS is roughly equal to the current Section 8 Housing Fund which is woefully inadequate to meet demand. We can’t have everything we want. There have to be limits on what we spend.

Two factors complicate the CHCCS financial situation this year.

First, there was an 18 pecent staff turnover last year for CHCCS. This school year started with unfilled elementary level positions for the first time in recent memory. Class sizes were increased to make up for the teacher shortage. Across all grade levels, positions went unfilled for the entire year.

In response to this teacher shortage, the CHCCS school board has promised a 5 percent salary increase for all teachers and signing bonuses for new math, science and exceptional education teachers. If the county commissioners decide not to fund their full $4.5 million request, the district will be faced with finding the necessary funds through budget cuts.

In Orange County, we’ve invested heavily in our schools. CHCCS has long maintained its reputation as the highest performing district in the state. But since the recession, the failure of the state to keep budgets aligned with population growth has placed increasing pressure on the local subsidy to pay for raises and other amenities. And if the state legislature follows the governor’s recommendation to raise the base salary for all teachers to $50,000, it will put even greater pressure on the local supplement, which pays a percentage of the base. Plus, with higher salaries come larger investments in benefits.

Financial reserves have been emptied and the fact that our county budget relies so heavily on property taxes means there isn’t an expectation of significant new revenues in the immediate future. Over the past several years of financial stress, the district has maintained its high level of service with reading, math and exceptional education specialists, autism support, and dual language programs. But those services come at a cost that may now be competing with more basic services like small class sizes and competitive teacher salaries.

In 2015, the Wake County school board adopted a plan to increase their average teacher salary to the national average of more than $56,310 by 2020. The Wake County Board of Commissioners allocated $16 million last year as the first step in the plan. There’s one very significant difference between Wake and Orange counties though. School budgets make up approximately 34 percent of Wake County’s budget this year, compared with 48 percent of Orange County’s budget.

This is a values problem. Quality schools are a community asset, and the staff at those schools deserve to be paid a competitive salary. But our community has other needs that are just as important as education, such as social services and public safety. Figuring out how we face the new reality of financing our school systems is not just a problem for the school board and district staff. This is an issue we need to face as a community.

You can reach Terri Buckner at Tbuckner306@gmail.com. Tell us what you think about today’s commentary at editor@newsobserver.com. Please include your name for publication.

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