NC principals would get raises under budget plan, but teachers are still waiting

Updated Oct. 24 with developments.

North Carolina principals will get their raises and bonuses this year under a plan unveiled this week, but Senate Republican leaders say teacher raises are held up because of the budget stalemate between the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Senate approved legislation Thursday to fund the 6,2% average pay raises for principals that were included in the budget vetoed by Cooper. The plan also funds “step increases” — the annual $1,000 increase that teachers with less than 15 years of experience receive.

But GOP leaders say that non-step increases for teachers and raises for school support staff have not been agreed to yet. They blamed the lack of teacher raises on how Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the budget because lawmakers didn’t include Medicaid expansion.

“It’s just unfortunate that we’re in this position now because the governor, because of Medicaid expansion, decided to veto a budget because it does create a problem,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and lead budget writer, said at Wednesday’s Senate appropriations committee meeting.

Cooper fired back on Thursday, accusing GOP lawmakers of not accepting the offer he made last week to negotiate school employee raises separate from Medicaid expansion.

“I’ve offered to negotiate teacher pay raises separately from the rest of the budget so that hardworking teachers can finally get the raises they deserve, and it’s disappointing that Republican leaders have not accepted my offer,” Cooper said in a statement Thursday. “Teachers shouldn’t be caught up in Raleigh politics while other state employees get raises.”

The Senate also approved Thursday legislation that includes money from the vetoed budget for salary increases for UNC system and community college employees. That bill, along with the one for principals and teachers, will go to the House for approval.

The votes Thursday were largely along partisan lines with Republicans voting for the bills. Democrats largely voted no, saying they were objecting to the lack of teacher raises.

“We need to acknowledge the fact that what we’re doing is denying appropriate raises to the people who impact the most precious commodity in our state: our children,” Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said Thursday.

Teachers started the new school year without step increases because of the budget fight.

Under the state’s salary schedule, beginning teachers start out getting $35,000 from the state, not including anything extra they receive from school districts. Teachers get an additional $1,000 a year from the state until they reach $50,000, after completing 15 years. After 25 years, that amount rises to $52,000 a year.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said lawmakers shouldn’t get any credit for funding step increases that are required under state law.

“What they’re doing right now is just putting forward something they already should have done,” Jewell said in an interview Wednesday. “Now the conversation is what are you going to do, House and Senate, about funding a significant increase for our employees.”

The budget adopted earlier this year by legislators included an average 3.8% raise for teachers over the next two years. Cooper vetoed the budget because he said the raises weren’t large enough and the budget didn’t fund Medicaid expansion.

Cooper had proposed giving teachers 8.5% raises over the next two years.

“Where are we going to be able to afford Medicaid expansion and teacher pay raises of 8.5%?” Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said at Wednesday’s Senate appropriations committee meeting. “There’s not enough money in this state unless you take it out of taxpayers’ pockets.”

House Republicans voted in September to override Cooper’s budget veto in a surprise session where many Democrats lawmakers were not present. But Senate Republicans, who’d need a single Democrat to override Cooper, haven’t voted yet.

In the interim, lawmakers have been passing individual spending measures through mini-budgets, including approving 5% raises over the next two years for many state employees. But teachers have been waiting, prompting complaints from some educators.

Democrats questioned including raises for other state employees but not teachers in the various mini-budgets. In a statement Thursday, Senate leader Phil Berger said that teacher pay makes up such a large part of the state budget at $5 billion that it doesn’t make sense to negotiate on that item separately.

“Governor Cooper’s behavior is not helpful,” Berger said in the statement. “He should at least be truthful with the public and tell them that I offered yet again to negotiate the entire budget, and he yet again refused, citing his Medicaid expansion ultimatum. If he would drop his ridiculous ultimatum, we could have a budget deal tomorrow.”

Thousands of teachers have marched on Raleigh the past two years to call for more education funding, including higher pay for educators.

Republican legislators have approved raises over the past several years that have elevated North Carolina to 29th in the nation in average teacher pay, compared to 47th in 2013. The Public School Forum of North Carolina has questioned the validity of state figures that show the average teacher’s salary is $53,975, although that same method has been used for years.

Lawmakers say they hope to resolve the remaining budget issues by the end of the month.

“We’re continuing to have conversations on teacher pay raises as we move forward, and some other things,” Brown said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.