Politics & Government

Raises? Supplies? More jobs? What teachers and state workers want in NC budget talks

For the 18 years Jasmine Lauer taught English at Raleigh’s Sanderson High School, her classroom was stocked with the same textbooks she herself studied from when she was a high school student.

Now she teaches at Pine Hollow Middle School in northwest Raleigh and has newer textbooks — because the school just opened three years ago. But even with the newer books, she said, teachers there still don’t always have the materials they need so they supply their classrooms out of their own pockets.

“If we’re going to say that public education equalizes the playing field for everyone, then we can’t have a situation where we have: one teacher can afford to buy textbooks because there is not an appropriate book, or one teacher always has a supply bin that is always open for students to come get what they need, and another teacher doesn’t have that,” Lauer said in an interview in her classroom. “Then it’s not equal.”

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Jasmine Lauer, an English teacher at Pine Hollow Middle School in northwest Raleigh, gestures during an interview in her classroom about state spending on teacher pay, school supplies and more. Will Doran wdoran@newsobserver.com

Increasing the amount of money that public schools receive per student will be a key priority of the North Carolina Association of Educators this year. Starting this week, the N.C. General Assembly will be back in Raleigh until at least the summer, as legislators work to pass a new state budget that will cover the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

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North Carolina’s average teacher pay dropped for five straight years, from 2008 to 2013, under years of both Democratic and Republican control over the state budget. Republicans took over in 2011, and after several years of criticism for low teacher pay gave North Carolina teachers the nation’s largest teacher raise in the 2014-15 school year. North Carolina has continued rising in national rankings for teacher pay with more raises since then, although it remains below the national average.

“Moving forward, I think we can find common ground on continuing to invest in students and teachers,” Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said in remarks this month to open the 2019 session. “We’ve provided educators with five consecutive pay raises, and in two of those years the growth in teacher pay in North Carolina was #1 or #2 in the country.”

In a press conference this month Berger’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, Republican Speaker Tim Moore, declined to say exactly what might be in store — if anything — for teachers and other state workers in the upcoming budget. He said he wanted to wait until state officials know “how strong our revenue numbers are” before deciding how to prioritize pay raises or other issues like growing the state’s “rainy day” savings fund.

“Once we know how much money we’ll have to spend, we’ll make those decisions,” he said.

Money for hiring, building

When teachers and groups like the NCAE talk about increasing school funding, a large part of what they want is raises for teachers. But it’s not only that.

Part of the increased funding should go toward textbooks and supplies, NCAE Executive Director Mark Jewell said in an interview. Part should go to hiring more school nurses, counselors and psychologists — all categories that North Carolina lags behind recommended levels, he said. And part should go toward making sure schools have enough money to hire the teachers they need to keep class sizes down and continue offering electives that don’t help with standardized tests but are important nonetheless.

“We see class sizes around 35 in the elementary schools,” Jewell said. “We see tough choices over having to lay off art, music and PE teachers.”

In addition to more money for salaries and supplies, Jewell and the NCAE also support a bond referendum — proposed late last year by Moore — that would put $2 billion toward new school and college buildings if the legislature passes it this year and then voters approve it in 2020.

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Jewell said the NCAE will also lay out a plan to get North Carolina’s teacher pay to the national average within three years. The average North Carolina teacher’s salary, he said, lags behind the national average by about $9,000 a year. Since North Carolina has more than 90,000 public school teachers, according to the National Education Association, that would require hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jewell said one group that absolutely needs to be taken care of is the most experienced teachers, since the largest raises in recent years have gone to beginning and mid-career teachers. The state also eliminated a longevity bonus for experienced teachers several years ago.

Lauer, who has been teaching for 20 years, said some of her more veteran colleagues have felt forgotten as the money for raises went elsewhere. But not only are they skilled in the classroom, she said, veteran teachers also have a valuable role as mentors for younger colleagues.

“I think that some of our most experienced educators feel like they have been disrespected by the more recent salary structures,” Lauer said. “And I think it’s understandable, right? If you see pay raises at the bottom — which are warranted and needed — but not at the top, then it starts to say, ‘Is my experience valuable? Am I being valued for the knowledge that I have amassed over all these years of teaching?’”

The debate over teacher pay raises was also a closely watched topic when the current budget was being written in 2017. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had called for an average 8 percent raise. Instead Republican lawmakers gave teachers an average 6.5 percent raise, plus they set aside millions more for performance-based bonuses that can let teachers in certain grades and subjects earn thousands of dollars extra if their students excel.

Principals who lead schools that place in the top 50 percent statewide for their students’ academic growth also will receive bonuses of between $1,000 and $20,000 depending on how well their schools did.

Jewell said the NCAE will be pushing for more raises this year, not just for teachers but also for principals and other school employees. The NCAE prefers across-the-board raises to bonuses, in part because not all teachers are eligible to compete for the bonuses.

Voucher funding on the rise

Jewell said the legislature can pay for some of the additional raises and other funding the NCAE wants, at least in part, by defunding the state’s controversial voucher system. That program, which started in 2014, allows qualifying families to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools.

“We have over $45 million a year going into a program that’s not accountable,” Jewell said.

Mike Long, the president of the pro-voucher group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, defended the program and said he would rather be working with the NCAE on getting teacher raises than fighting over the voucher program.

“We are all for the public schools,” said Long, adding that he attended and later taught in Durham Public Schools. “We are all for making them better, so we are always looking for ways to promote education reform.”

The state spends $45 million annually on vouchers, and the legislature plans to increase that to $145 million a year by 2027. Long said his group doesn’t plan to ask for additional funding this year, but they are interested in allowing low-income families to get more money for private school tuition. Currently the most a family can receive is $4,200 per year per child.

“We’re talking about, quite frankly, poor families,” Long said. “And they’re stuck. The school they’re required to attend is failing, and they have no way out. These are mostly moms and dads and children of color, and we believe the opportunity scholarship movement is the civil rights movement of our time.”

Cutting the voucher program won’t be a popular idea with the Republican legislators who created it and still control the legislature, although Jewell said he thinks teachers and their supporters have increased clout now.

He pointed to the large Teacher’s March last spring when thousands of school workers took the day off to protest at the legislature, shutting down several of the state’s largest school districts for the day. He said that energy carried through to last November, when Democrats flipped enough seats in the legislature to break the Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority, which gives them and Cooper more negotiating power for this year’s budget talks.

“They’re not going to be able to ramrod through what we say is favoring corporate boardrooms over the public classrooms,” Jewell said.

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Other state employee issues

Teachers aren’t the only state employees who will be heavily involved in the upcoming budget talks.

Prison workers will continue to push for safer working conditions and better pay, said Robert Broome, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, following a year that saw five prison workers killed on the job amid concerns of understaffing and high turnover rates.

Employees at the Department of Health and Human Services also need attention in the budget, Broome said — especially regarding safety concerns at the state-run mental-health hospitals, like Broughton Hospital in Morganton where he visited with employees several days ago.

“I’m not equating offenders in a prison with patients in a state hospital,” he said. “But there are echoes of concerns that are the same.”

And while North Carolina last year became the first state in the nation to offer nearly all state employees a $15 minimum wage, both SEANC and the NCAE plan to push to expand that $15 minimum wage to those who were left out, who are mostly school workers like custodians and cafeteria workers.

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Broome and Jewell also both said they will push for a cost-of-living adjustment to the pensions that retired state workers and teachers receive.

“It’s a high priority for us because our retirees’ pensions have not been keeping up with inflation,” Broome said.

Just as Jewell plans to push for a raise for veteran teachers, Broome said he thinks some veteran state workers in other agencies also deserve a raise. He said some managers have had long careers with the state but were making just barely above $15 an hour last year, meaning that suddenly their less experienced subordinates got a larger raise and are making nearly as much as them. He wants to make sure they are taken care of in this year’s budget, he said.

For SEANC, the issues don’t stop at pay raises. Broome said the group also wants to join State Treasurer Dale Folwell in pushing for more transparency in the State Health Plan, as well as a change in the way that hospitals are reimbursed that Broome said would save state taxpayers more than $300 million a year.

But hospital executives and their representatives in the N.C. Hospital Association are worried about what that might do to their bottom line. In late 2018 a draft bill circulated in the legislature that would’ve stopped some of the changes Folwell and SEANC want to make to the State Health Plan. And although it never came up for a vote then, Broome said he expects it to come back this year.

Broome said that debate, when it happens, “could and should bring greater transparency to the discussion over how we pay for indigent care in North Carolina. And I think the next logical step on that is talking about Medicaid expansion. I know that’s a priority for the governor, and I’ve been reading that legislators are warming up on that.”

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