Durham County

Local supplements push pay for first-year teachers above $40K. Is that ‘good money’?

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson speaks at a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. Hundreds attended the rally where Johnson was one of the featured speakers.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson speaks at a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. Hundreds attended the rally where Johnson was one of the featured speakers. cseward@newsobserver.com

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson caught a lot of heat last week for his comment about $35,000 being “good money” for young teachers, but he undersold how much beginning teachers in some of the state’s wealthier school districts actually make.

When you include local supplements, some first-year teachers in area districts can easily pocket more than $40,000 a year.

That’s the case in Chapel Hill Carrboro-City Schools (CHCCS) where the local supplement is 16 percent — $5,600 — of a first-year teacher’s state pay of $35,000. So, when you combine the two, a first-year CHCCS teacher can earn $40,600 a year.

The pot is even sweeter for first-year teachers in CHCCS eligible for one-time signing bonuses. The district routinely offers bonuses ranging from $1,500-$2,000 for teachers in hard to fill disciplines such as math and science and those who teach in the Exceptional Children program.

In Durham Public Schools, where the supplement is 12.5 percent during the first 10 years on the job, a first-year teacher takes home an annual supplement of $4,375 to boost starting pay to $39,375.

And in Wake County, which also offers a very generous supplement, the starting salary for teachers climbs to $41,037.

Johnson’s comments were roundly criticized by those in the teaching profession who think educators in North Carolina by any measurement are underpaid.

“I was startled by the superintendent’s [Johnson] lack of empathy and concern for the heroic work teachers do every day,” said Durham Public Schools Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. “Clearly, he’s out of touch.”

Rani Dasi, chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, tweeted that Johnson “commented that $30K is ‘good money for people in their 20s’ I say maybe 25 years ago. This is why voting matters!”

The comment also struck a nerve with Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators [NCAE], who did not invite Johnson to the teacher advocacy group’s annual upcoming convention in March. The snub broke a 48-year tradition of the NCAE president asking the state superintendent to attend the event.

Arasi Adkins, DPS’ assistant superintendent for human resources, said one has to consider the higher cost-of-living in school districts such as Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro, where she has also worked, when discussing whether teacher pay in North Carolina is adequate.

“It’s about the cost of living,” said Adkins.

Adkins said DPS uses a variety of strategies such selling recruits on the city of Durham’s rebirth to combat what is considered low teacher pay.

The school board’s recent decision to offer some teachers multi-year contracts in place of tenure, which state lawmakers ended in 2013, is also a part of that strategy as well as possible signing bonuses and teacher housing in the future.

Adkins said low teacher pay across the board in North Carolina makes recruitment difficult, especially as DPS goes after teachers from the northeastern part of the U.S. who are accustomed to pay higher than what’s usually available in this state.

Johnson made his comment about teacher pay last week during a question-and-answer session at the N.C. School Boards Association’s policy conference in Raleigh.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the superintendent, said later that Johnson was referring to 22-year-olds just out of college who work as teachers in some parts of the state. He pointed to how the median household income is at or below $35,000 a year in 17 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and that the median income is below $40,000 in 33 counties.

Todd LoFrese, the CHCCS assistant superintendent of support services, noted that the supplement provided by CHCCS is one of the more generous in the state and is driven by the district’s desire to recruit and retain the best teachers and because it costs more to live in Chapel Hill.

“Pay is a motivating factor for folks,” LoFrese said. “We want to do our best to attract the best and brightest teachers and keep them in our district. There’s probably a cost of living factor in there as well.”

Beyer said North Carolina needs to have a “larger conversation” about strategies to ensure educators make a living wage so they are not forced to take part-time jobs to make ends meet.

She noted that enrollment has declined in the state’s schools of education and worries that North Carolina will not have enough teachers if improvements are not made in pay and working conditions.

“Who will the district find to be in our classrooms?” Beyer asked. “We are incredibly worried about not having enough teachers.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645