Education

NC schools chief: Teacher-pay comment was ‘inelegant.’ Critics still aren’t satisfied.

N.C. Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson holds up books as he shares details of a new literacy initiative with kindergarteners at East Garner Elementary School in Garner, N.C., on April 3, 2017.
N.C. Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson holds up books as he shares details of a new literacy initiative with kindergarteners at East Garner Elementary School in Garner, N.C., on April 3, 2017. amoody@newsobserver.com

In the wake of his controversial statements on teacher pay, State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson says he used “less-than-stellar phrasing” when he said $35,000 was good money for young teachers in rural parts of North Carolina.

Groups such as the N.C. Association of Educators have accused Johnson of disrespecting teachers when he publicly said the $35,000 state base starting salary is a lot of money for some new educators. In an op-ed in The News & Observer posted online Wednesday, Johnson said his remarks were an “admittedly inelegant attempt” to highlight how the state’s urban-rural divide causes people to see things differently.

“I said the state’s annual base starting pay (before local supplements) of $35,000 was a good start in some rural communities where families of all shapes, sizes, and age ranges bring home a median household income of just $33,000 a year,” Johnson wrote. “While we are on the right track with recent salary increases, I continued, we need to keep working to better compensate our teachers.

“But my less-than-stellar phrasing activated a fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.”

But Johnson’s op-ed piece didn’t satisfy some critics.

“North Carolina educators believe that if we are serious about recruiting and retaining teachers who are critical to student success, then public schools need to be the highest priority,” Mark Jewell, president of the NCAE, said in a statement. “Disrespecting educators is not a partisan issue, it’s a public school crisis.

“Educator voices have been disregarded over this last year, and our students deserve better.”

NCAE, which is the largest group representing teachers in the state, recently announced it won’t invite Johnson to speak at the group’s annual convention in March.

North Carolina’s urban-rural divide centers around the economic gap between the state’s mostly rural counties and the booming urban and suburban counties. Gov. Roy Cooper recently announced the creation of the Hometown Strong program to help rural counties track down funding from state, federal and nonprofit sources.

Johnson had been invited to speak at the N.C. School Boards Association’s public policy conference in Raleigh on Jan. 25. In his op-ed, Johnson said he had hoped talking about starting teacher salaries at the event would illustrate how transforming the education system will be a key part of bridging the urban-rural divide.

A spokesman for Johnson has pointed out that the median household income is at or below $35,000 a year in 17 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and that it is below $40,000 in 33 counties.

In the op-ed, Johnson said that while he supports raising teacher pay, he called it only one piece to strengthening the public school system. He also pointed to the need to provide rural communities with modern school facilities, to give new technology to help teachers personalize learning and to create ways to help students connect to local jobs.

“Solving the challenge of the rural-urban divide is no easy task, and it will take different kinds of leadership from across the state to get it done,” Johnson, a Republican wrote. “Gov. Cooper (a Democrat) is right to focus on the issue. We don’t agree on everything, but the governor and I can, and do, engage in productive conversations. I want others to join us.”

But Debbie Marsh, a school board member in the Mooresville Graded School District, said Johnson’s remarks about teacher pay were not made in the context of any discussion of the urban-rural divide. Marsh said Johnson responded to a question about raising teacher pay as a way to deal with any teacher shortages.

“I don’t remember any use of the term urban-rural divide,” Marsh said.

Rani Dasi, chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, also said that she hadn’t gotten the sense at the conference that Johnson had been talking about the urban-rural divide. But Dasi said it’s not as much of a factor that incomes are lower in rural areas considering how much college tuition costs for teachers and how healthcare costs are rising.

“When we allow lower salaries in rural districts, we disadvantage those students in those communities,” Dasi said. “I have as much passion for those children in rural districts as I do in urban districts.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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