Wake County commissioners support teacher pay raises

Members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners responded warmly Monday to school leaders’ hopes to use local money to raise teacher salaries this year.

School administrators told commissioners that increasing teacher pay to the national average of $56,000 a year is one of the school board’s budget priorities, but would cost $100 million. Commissioners and school leaders were quick to say they wouldn’t expect that large an increase this year. But commissioners agreed they need to raise teacher pay.

“About six months ago, a message was sent that teacher salaries are too low in this county,” Commissioner John Burns told school administrators. “So I would encourage you to please do whatever you can.”

Burns was one of four Democrats elected in November who campaigned, in part, against the Republican majority’s refusal to ask voters to raise sales taxes for teacher raises. Democrats now hold all seven seats on the Board of Commissioners.

Board Chairman James West said he agreed that raising teacher pay to the national average should be a high priority. However, he said, members should remember that the state has traditionally paid teacher salaries. Counties like Wake often supplement the amount.

In response to concerns that North Carolina teacher salaries rank among the nation’s lowest, state leaders approved big raises for newer teachers last year, with much smaller increases for highly experienced educators. That pattern was repeated when Gov. Pat McCrory presented a budget proposal this month that would raise pay for beginning teachers to $35,000 a year – an increase of $2,000.

Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill told commissioners that saying the funding is the state’s responsibility likely won’t lead to an increase this year for experienced teachers.

“We’re simply saying if there’s going to be a difference, it’s probably going to have to be done locally, because right now the state doesn’t appear to be interested in doing so,” Merrill said.

School administrators told commissioners they haven’t determined the amount in local money they will request for raises.

On April 7, Merrill will present his operating budget of more than $1 billion for the 2015-16 fiscal year. After approval by the school board, it goes to the Board of Commissioners, who provide a quarter of the school district’s budget.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes, who was elected in November, said in an interview that commissioners should make sure that teachers are a high priority.

“We know we’re having some problems with recruiting and keeping the best teachers in Wake County,” said Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, also elected in November. “Teacher compensation has got to be part of the conversation.”

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui