Johnston County

Johnston schools’ budget focuses on teacher raises

School board member Dorothy Johnson listens as superintendent Ross Renfrow presents his $72 million budget request.
School board member Dorothy Johnson listens as superintendent Ross Renfrow presents his $72 million budget request.

At the root of the Johnston County Schools’ local budget request is this reality: The district has a teacher problem, hiring them and then convincing them to stay.

Nearly half of the school system’s proposed $15 million increase in funding over last year is devoted to increasing salaries for teachers, either by rewarding those getting advanced degrees or offering general raises to better compete with nearby and lucrative Wake County.

The largest single increase in Johnston’s budget appears now to be unnecessary. Superintendent Ross Renfrow had built more than $6 million into the budget to hire 85 teachers and buy new mobile classrooms to satisfy new limits on class size in kindergarten through third grade. The General Assembly appears to have offered school districts a one-year reprieve on lower class sizes, a mandate that had come without an increase in state funding.

“The House and Senate worked out a compromise that kicks this can down the road until next year,” Renfrow said.

But Renfrow noted that the schools still need nearly $1 million locally to hire 15 new teachers for elementary school classrooms.

With the money for smaller classrooms gone, that brings Johnston’s proposed local school budget to around $72 million. Much of the proposed increase would boost teacher pay in a school district that still has 30 classroom positions it couldn’t fill this year. One aim is to reduce the number of classrooms without a teacher; another is to stem the turnover driven by teachers taking jobs in higher-paying Wake County.

Renfrow’s budget proposes a 1-percent local supplement increase for teachers for the second year in a row. That would cost $1.9 million. The district also wants to increase supplements for teachers with advanced degrees; the state used to do that but stopped in 2013. That would add $5 million to the budget, but school board member Peggy Smith thinks that’s what Johnston needs to do to end the annual exodus of teachers.

“Many, many times I’ve said our superintendent never brings us a budget and asks for a dime when he needs nine cents,” Smith said. “In the past, I believe we’ve asked for a dime when we needed 15 cents. I believe this is putting us back to where we need the 15 cents. ... I remember talking about the master’s (degree) pay in the past, and we haven’t been able to do it. Well, now we need to do it because our master degree teachers are leaving our county, and they are going to places where they are getting paid for their degree.”

Renfrow also proposed supplement increases for assistant principals and principals, and he has built another $1.7 million into the budget to respond to mandates from Raleigh.

For the first time, Johnston is proposing salary increases to help speed academic growth in the county’s four lowest-performing schools, Cooper Elementary, Selma Middle, Smithfield-Selma High School and North Johnston Middle. The district is offering an additional 2 percent supplement for teachers at these schools and a bonus for principals. Together, that’s $300,000.

“We want to put people there that want to be there, and we’re hoping that a 2 percent supplement increase would say, ‘Well, I have three years left, I want to maximize my retirement to make as much money as possible,’ ” Renfrow said. “ ‘If I can get 2 percent more, I’m headed to Cooper, I’m headed to North Johnston Middle School so I can get that pay increase.’ It puts dollars in teachers’ pocket, but it could have the potential to put a master teacher with students in those low-performing schools.”

The budget is ambitious for a school system that didn’t get the much-smaller increase that it sought last year. And the requested increase comes after the schools recently asked for and received a special appropriation of $30 million to help critical building-repair needs.

New school board member Ronald Johnson asked Renfrow to tell him how he’s supposed to defend the increases when he’s asked about it on the street. Renfrow said teacher supplements are at the top of his list and that additional supplements might lead to breakthroughs at the county’s low-performing schools. He said the request for four additional nurses and 13 more social workers likely doesn’t get the county all the way to fulfilling the need, but might make the difference for students who need them.

“We have so many students come from nontraditional homes,” Renfrow said. “If you had 48 social workers, one for every school, I don’t know if that would be enough. You’ve got 1,800 students in a school. How can one social worker serve 1,800 students?”

Renfrow said the school system’s websites are often months behind and believes the $62,000 for a webmaster would help keep things up to date.

“I think there was some discussion about whether this was the right thing to do or the wise thing to do,” Renfrow said of the increases. “I can’t comment on that, but based on the input from people sitting around that horseshoe, I know this is a good budget and I can defend it to anybody.”

In supporting the budget, Johnson called for greater accountability of the tax dollars, specifically those proposed to go to lower-performing schools. He said after next year, he wants to see quarterly reports in those four schools that the extra money is having an impact.

“When we invest this kind of money in our lower-performing schools, I’d like to see some kind of report or quarterly assessment of how these extra dollars are impacting our students,” Johnson said.

Johnston will now submit its budget request to county commissioners, who will make the final decision on the school system’s loca funding for next year.