The waiting game continues for local teachers, as well as for school leaders worried about losing educators while Mecklenburg County and North Carolina legislators consider funds for pay raises.
That was the focus of a forum hosted by education advocacy group Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education, or MeckEd, on June 24 in SouthPark. The presentation featured a panel that included Trevor Fuller, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners; SouthPark-area Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour; Paul Bailey, south Mecklenburg’s representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education; and Jonathan Sink, associate general counsel for CMS.
MeckEd presented state and county budget information as it pertained to CMS funding and hosted a question-and-answer session from audience members.
CMS teachers took a sigh of relief a few weeks ago when Mecklenburg County commissioners approved their $1.5 billion budget. The spending plan granted an additional $26.8 million to the school district – some, but not all, of the funds the CMS Board of Education requested. The district requested $19.4 million for a 3 percent raise for all CMS employees, and instead received $7.9 million for raises of at least 2 percent for county-funded teacher positions. The county also agreed to match the amount of raises given by the state to CMS teachers.
The North Carolina General Assembly is still formulating the state budget based on the proposals from Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. Senate and House. The proposals all include an increase in starting teacher salary to $33,000, but questions still remain on the status of teacher tenure and pay raises. And while educators across the state wait on the fate of the education spending debate in Raleigh, Mecklenburg commissioners have passed a potential solution to generate more funds.
Mecklenburg County residents will vote on a referendum in November that could increase the county’s sales tax .25 cents, according to commissioners. If the referendum passes, 80 percent of the additional funds will go to CMS, generating an estimated $28 million for teacher raises – roughly a 4 percent increase.
And while that may go a long way in addressing the needs CMS leaders are concerned about, some educators at the MeckEd discussion wish the county had just fixed the problem when it had a chance with its budget. McClintock Middle School Principal Paul Williams said the county needed to fund the entire $402.7 million budget requested by the board of education, which would have required an increase of $46.2 million instead of the extra $26.8 million given.
“From a principal’s perspective, the county fully funding the budget is a priority,” Williams said. “We can’t always rely on what’s going on in Raleigh.”
Williams said the county needs to do more to help locally and increase teacher pay or risk losing quality teachers. Some south Charlotte principals have recently complained to CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison about teachers applying for positions across the state line in Fort Mill, Indian Land and Rock Hill, South Carolina, where they can earn more.
MeckEd’s community conversation echoed other concerns from CMS educators about how much of a priority the school system is to the county.
Mecklenburg County is the wealthiest county in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, with $909 million in property tax collection – 49 percent of which is spent on schools. To compare, the second ranked county, Wake County, has $659 million in property tax collection and spends 77 percent on schools, according to the department.
Joanna Schimizzi, a biology teacher from Butler High School and 2012 MeckEd Teacher of Excellence, believes that the percentage of the property tax allocated to schools may not be enough. She asked Fuller and Ridenhour and their fellow commissioners to “put your money where you mouth is” at the presentation, asking whether commissioners felt the investment the county puts in other Mecklenburg facets – such as parks and recreation, health and human services and the library system – are producing worthwhile results.
“Where is your data that shows a return on investment that CMS is only worth 50 percent?” she asked.
Ridenhour, who recently said he would support the school system being given the ability to levy taxes for its own funding as long as Mecklenburg County no longer was responsible for its funding, reminded education advocates that the county has a number of other components it must support that the community wants and needs.
“This is not an apples-to-apples comparison in the way we spend our money,” he added.
While county and state leaders have argued that it’s the other group of elected officials’ responsibility to support teacher pay raises, local educators just want someone to step up to the plate and fix what they see as a serious problem.
“The county values our teachers, but they are in a tough situation because they are tight on funds,” new Butler High Principal John LeGrand said. “They’re trying to do the best they can, but the county needs to look at the value of education when trying to attract businesses and people looking to transfer here.”
Many local educators are nervous teachers will continue to leave the county if teacher pay increases minimally or remains stagnant.
LeGrand has seen multiple teachers “who have a passion for teaching” leave the county or state due to teacher pay, he said.
“I’ve lost a couple of teachers – some of my best teachers (in the past few years),” Williams, the McClintock Middle principal, added.
Many teachers have told their principals that they couldn’t economically continue to teach due to the low wages, as much as they hate to leave their schools or their professions.
“Many want to stay teaching, but they are facing mounting bills from student loans and basic living expenses,” Dina Modine, principal at McAlpine Elementary, said in an email. “Luckily, our teachers are staying in teaching at McAlpine, but I don’t know how long they can sustain living standards with the dismal pay they receive.”