Phil Matthews and Matt Calabria speak often of two different Wake Countys, or at least have been talking to very different residents.
Matthews, the incumbent Republican county commissioner, says everyone he talks to in the county is happy with the direction of the local government. Calabria, his Democratic challenger, said there is concern among teachers and residents. And chief among those concerns, he said: an impending shortage of schools paired with a disgruntled group of teachers that will leave the education system unprepared for expected growth.
In addition, while Matthews points to a small increase in the teacher supplement as progress, Calabria notes the increase in teachers leaving the system as a major problem.
The school district has stated that it needs 40 new schools built and a number of others renovated by 2020 to accommodate projected growth; the recently-passed $810 million school construction bond will build 16 of them and renovate others.
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Matthews said he is “very cautious to those numbers,” and notes that estimates of not just how much but where the county is growing will also greatly impact the schools needed. He also noted rising enrollment in charter and private enrollment as a possible drain on public enrollment.
“The ink is barely dry getting started on these bonds. We need to get to building schools rather than working on the next bond,” Matthews said. “I can’t see jumping on another bond immediately without getting our arms around what we’re building now.”
He said if growth in coming years matches projections, it will be possible to put bonds on the ballot in 2016 and 2018. And he said a lot can happen to the economy and growth factors in the coming years, including state and local factors.
“Everything is there if we need to pull the trigger (on a later bond),” Matthews said.
Calabria said the challenge, though, is that the problems these bonds need to address aren’t future problems, but already apparent ones. And he said the current commissioners are taking a reactionary approach to building schools.
“It seems that his position here is very much like his overall strategy for dealing with problems: wait for problems and then try to fix them rather than head them off,” Calabria said. “To assume that these problems might not be happening in 2020 misses the point. The point is it’s happening now.”
As examples, he cited students in western Wake County taking long commutes at great transportation costs because not enough local schools exist. He said he’s heard from several constituents that other schools, including schools in Fuquay-Varina, need renovation badly. And Garner has agitated for a third middle school that didn’t make the bond cut for years.
Matthews said biting off more than it could chew would be a mistake for the county and could lead to mismanaged projects that lose cost-effectiveness and have reduced oversight and planning. Calabria said waiting for a log-jam in which the county had to build too many schools too fast would do the same.
The state funds a majority of teacher pay, but localities can offer supplements. This summer commissioners raised that supplement 4.5 percent (nearly one percent of salary). The county set aside $3.75 million for the raises, bringing the total for teacher supplements to nearly $87 million. The supplement represents about a quarter of the roughly $340 million county education budget.
Matthews lauded the effort to put Wake teachers at the forefront of the state; the increase made Wake’s the largest supplement in the state. But Calabria said it has not been enough and called the small increase a political move. The increase constitutes about a third of 1 percent of the county budget. He said WCPSS needs to be competitive compared to more than just other teaching jobs in the state.
“We have to compensate teachers in a way that reflects their value to our community. We’ve heard from droves of teachers who are very upset, and feel that they are undervalued,” Calabria said, pointing to an uptick in teacher resignations last summer. “The teacher retention crisis is the biggest issue facing us in this election.”
Traditionally the county has about an 11 percent annual teacher turnover, or about 1,000 positions to fill. WCPSS spokesman Tim Simmons said this year the district had to replace 30 percent more teachers, necessitating an additional 300 hires more than in years past.
Calabria criticized the commission for electing not to bring a more substantial teacher pay to the residents for a vote. Matthews said that before the increase the state hadn’t finalized teacher raises so it made sense to see where those went. He also said he didn’t want to see another tax hike so soon after the construction bond.