Skip to content

DPI needs ‘extremely competent’ team, says former state superintendent

A recent article from WBTV is causing a stir among teachers over its findings, which include what the article calls “inflated” salaries for employees at the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) under Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

But former State Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, says Truitt isn’t doing anything wrong.

“I understand why teachers would be upset or concerned, but you do need people in the Department of Public Instruction who are extremely competent and who will make a difference for the teachers and students in the classroom, and that requires competitive salaries to do so,” she said.

Other state education leaders, including Truitt, agree with that sentiment, saying that is exactly what’s happening.

“This agency’s ability to support districts is only as good as my ability to put together the best team possible,” Truitt said.

The WBTV article and DPI response

Blair Rhoades, director of communications for DPI, addressed each of WBTV’s “findings” in an email.

WBTV finding: “Five people earning a salary outside the maximum for their position classification.”

Rhoades response: “These represent unique instances where salary exceptions were made, as permissible by OSHR [North Carolina Office of State Human Resources], to recruit and retain the talent the agency requires and the districts deserves.”

WBTV finding: “30 DPI employees making $100,000/year or more whose salary is above the midpoint of the salary range for their position classification.”

Rhoades response: “In the state’s compensation structure, the midpoint is considered the market rate or the competitive rate. These are experienced professionals who are within the range permitted by OSHR.”

WBTV finding: “19 employees making at least $75,000/year that received a raise this year of 10% or more. Ten employees in that category received a raise of at least 20%.”

Rhoades response: “Yes, the majority of these employees received a raise because they were promoted or had a job change, resulting in increased scope and responsibility.”

WBTV finding: “The top employee to get a raise this year received a 61% pay increase.”

Rhoades response: “This was a circumstance where the person was not paid what they were promised when they agreed to join to the agency. This raise was to reflect a promotion, and to honor the terms and conditions that were promised when the person was initially hired.”

The story behind the 61%

The 61% increase was given to Freebird McKinney, director of legislative and community affairs and a former state teacher of the year. His salary went from $74,313 to $120,000. The article links to the data here

There are multiple people at DPI who make $120,000, including former regional teacher of the year Julie Pittman and former principal of the year Tabari Wallace, both of whom were brought on board by Truitt. Pittman is special assistant on educator engagement and Wallace is special assistance on principal engagement. Both report directly to Truitt.

McKinney actually joined DPI staff under former Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson. When Truitt was elected, she hired Jamey Falkenbury — who formerly worked for Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — to serve as director of government affairs, a role complementary to McKinney’s (the two often present to the State Board of Education together). Falkenbury received $120,000 in compensation. The WBTV article states that McKinney’s salary went up this year — Truitt’s first — which means it rose to match the levels of Falkenbury, Pittman, and Wallace. 

What does Truitt say?

Truitt said when she was elected superintendent, she wanted to build a team of “experts in education,” but she said that takes money.

“In terms of hiring a cracker-jack team, anytime you bring people to DPI, whether it’s someone in IT, someone in finance, or someone in education … I have to look at where they’re coming from and what their salary was and try not to give them a pay cut,” she said.

She said the legislature didn’t give her extra money to do this. Instead, she reallocated money to bring to the department the people she thought she needed, something she said is difficult when she has to compete with departments like the Department of Information Technology or the Department of Health and Human Services.

She said there had been a lot of attrition at DPI over the past four years, and that she was trying to put the department back together.

Between 2008 and 2018, according to the NC Public School Forum, DPI’s budget was cut $29 million — approximately 300 positions.

She said she chose her team without regard to political party, mentioning the hiring of former principal and teachers of the year, district superintendents, and Michael Maher, executive director of the Office of Learning Recovery & Acceleration at DPI. He ran as a Democrat for state Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2020.

The fallout

The WBTV article juxtaposes the DPI salaries with those of district teachers around the state, saying: “The raises and inflated salaries at the state’s education office come as classroom teachers and other frontline educators continue their years-long wait to see any increase in their pay scale.”

The reference there is to the fact that the state hasn’t had a new budget since 2018 and teachers haven’t seen any salary increases in that time, either.

That juxtaposition seems to be catching on online and in social media.

On a Facebook page for state educators, teachers are discussing the article, even circulating a petition to increase teacher salaries. As of this writing, 682 people had signed the petition. The petition puts responsibility for teacher pay increases erroneously at the feet of the State Board of Education.

“Unless the North Carolina Board of Education wants to lose quality teachers who are passionate about this profession, they MUST make changes to the working conditions and increase the pay of their educators and support staff. Please click the link below to view our website and read our list of grievances and demands.”

Another post on the Facebook feed inaccurately says that State Board of Education members make between $52,363 and $83,967 a year. The information was gleaned from salary.com, on a post that is giving information on “Board” member salaries generically. State Board of Education members don’t make a salary. They are reimbursed for mileage and get a per diem.

Who determines teacher pay and how much do increases cost?

It is actually the North Carolina General Assembly who determines how much teachers get paid each year from the state with local districts supplementing teacher pay with their own money. The General Assembly also decides how much money the state Department of Public Instruction gets.

Alexis Schauss, chief financial officer for DPI, said it costs roughly $58 to $60 million for each 1% increase for certified personnel paid on the teacher salary schedule (that includes instructional support personnel).

Truitt said that while it isn’t within her power to set teacher pay rates, she has always been an advocate for higher teacher pay, and she said she is working with the Human Capital Roundtable to develop a teacher recruitment and retention strategy that will include paying teachers more for the additional responsibilities that they take on.

“We want for this new teacher pay structure to recognize that teachers need to have other ways to be compensated for the extra responsibility they take on,” she said. “This pay structure will allow teachers to do that … will give them a path to promotion without having to leave the classroom, and without having to take on more work that is uncompensated.”

She said that eventually she will be asking the legislature to make changes to the teacher pay structure in line with these ideas.

What do other education leaders say?

Atkinson says that while DPI may have a problem with optics when it comes to salaries, the pay strategy makes sense both practically and within the law as set out by the General Assembly.

Superintendent June Atkinson in 2016. Alex Granados/EducationNC

She said that DPI has historically had trouble getting people to come work for them, and when Johnson took over the department after Atkinson, the General Assembly acted to fix that.

“The General Assembly gave the superintendent when Mark [Johnson] was elected the authority to raise salaries to attract people,” she said. “So I think the department, what they’re doing is in line with what the law has given Catherine [Truitt] the authority to do.” 

State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis echoed Atkinson’s sentiments on the difficulty DPI has attracting talent.

“The folks at DPI that I interact with on a regular basis, they do an unbelievable job,” he said, “And in many cases, we’re struggling to keep that talent in DPI because other state agencies can pay more.”

Atkinson said that the relatively small amount of money being spent on salaries at DPI wouldn’t have much of an impact on teachers salaries, even if it were siphoned off for that purpose.

“The General Assembly just needs to come to the place where they pay teachers competitive salaries,” she said.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.