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House budget press conference sets the stage

Yesterday was a long day in the state House, as the chamber’s budget proposal hit the floor for amendments and debate. The day began with a press conference by Republican leaders, setting the stage for the discussions to come. 

Different Republican members of the House took the opportunity to highlight portions of the budget plan, including principal and teacher pay. 

The budget proposal spends more than $180.9 million in the first year and $456.5 million in the second year on increases to teacher and principal pay. Of that, about $94 million is specifically for principal pay — about $38 million in the first year and almost $56 million in the second year. About $27 million total for both years is designated for school counselors. 

In response to a reporter’s question, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, a chair of both the K-12 education and education appropriations committee, clarified the intent behind the raise distribution on the teacher pay schedule. Rough estimates from the fiscal research division of the General Assembly show an average increase in teacher salaries of 3.3 percent in 2017-18 and between 9 and 9.5 percent over the biennium, but they are more heavily weighted towards teachers later in their careers. The plan also includes a bonus of $5,000 for teachers with 27 or more years of experience if they commit to two additional years of teaching. 

“What we were looking at were retention numbers from year to year,” Elmore said, noting that lawmakers saw “hot spots” in some later years where the state was losing teachers. “We want a 15-year employee to stay with the state because they’re mid career.”

On the subject of bonuses, Elmore said House Republicans wanted to keep some of the most experienced teachers from retiring. The House did not make those bonuses part of salary for those teachers because it might be an enticement to leave the profession. 

“When you put higher salaries at the tail end of the scale, the teacher at that point has the ability to retire and that would affect their retirement benefits,” he said. “So you’re not getting more work years from the teacher.” 

On principal pay, Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Mecklenburg, one of the K-12 education committee chairs, said the new salary schedule was designed to fix problems with the prior salary schedules. EdNC reported extensively on these problems, including the fact that in some cases teachers could make more than the administrators that oversee them. 

“We had 4,000 ways to pay 4,000 principals,” she said. 

She said one of the goals of the schedule was to align principal, assistant principal and teacher salaries, something the prior schedule did not do. 

“A lot of the differences in the way that it is paid is because it is just to solve a problem,” she said. 

The revamped principal schedule is calculated by combining years of experience with the average daily membership of the principal’s school and a percentage of the students in the school who get free and reduced price lunch. The salary schedules of teachers, assistant principals and principals are also tied together.

For instance, the basic principal salary schedule — not including the aspects of principal pay related to average daily membership and free and reduced lunch population — is calculated by taking the monthly amount of pay for a regular teacher of 15 years, adding in 12 percent, and then adjusting according to the principal’s years of experience. 

Assistant principals are paid the same as regular teachers with equivalent years of experience but with an additional 22 percent added on top. 

Because of the revamped principal schedule, House leaders were not able to give a number for the percent increase in average principal pay under the House budget proposal. 

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior chair of the House appropriations committee, highlighted some of the portions of the budget he considered standouts, including a two-year plan to eliminate the NC Pre-K waiting list. 

“Putting the money in the first and second year to eliminate that current Pre-K waiting list…is a fundamental point in this budget that we believe moves our state forward,” he said. 

Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, said in an e-mail that the House plan is a good beginning. 

“Expanding access so that more children benefit from our state’s high-quality pre-kindergarten program is an excellent step in ensuring children have the experiences they need to build a strong foundation for learning and put them on track for grade-level reading and academic and career success,” she said.

Zimmerman said that NC Pre-K currently serves between 40 and 44 percent of income-eligible children, but she added that the waiting list does not represent the total need for NC Pre-K in the state. 

The North Carolina School Boards Association’s governmental relations Twitter account pointed out Wednesday that waiting lists are kept by counties and that some counties do not keep waiting lists, meaning that there are likely children that need to get into pre-K but aren’t in consideration for enrollment.

Zimmerman echoed the sentiment that funding the waiting list is not a total solution to meeting the need for pre-K in the state. 

“Some parents may not bother putting their names on the list if they think there is no hope of it happening, which is why it doesn’t represent need or demand,” she said. “This should be a starting point, not an ending one.”

Dollar’s Twitter account responded to the NCSBA governmental relations tweet and a short conversation ensued. 

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a chair of both the K-12 education and education appropriations committees, used the press conference as an opportunity to mention the return of the Teaching Fellows Program, a scholarship program for students interested in pursuing teaching careers, and to highlight a change that has been about 30 years in the making. 

“We have for the first time since its inception, raised the cap on funding for children with disabilities,” he said.

Rep Craig Horn, R-Union, talking about the education portions of the budget at Thursday’s press conference (Photo credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

The House budget provides $4,125.27 for each student with disabilities, but the cap Horn mentioned relates to how many students with disabilities can get that funding. Previously it was 12.5 percent, but the House budget moves it up to 13 percent. The change means a district receives funding for children with disabilities that is 13 percent of the 2017-18 allocated average daily student membership in the districts. For instance, if there were 20,000 kids in a district, the district would get $4,125.27 each for about 2,600 (13 percent of 20,000) students that could be used on students with disabilities. That is unless there are fewer than 2,600 students with disabilities, in which case the district would just get $4,125.27 for each student with disabilities it has.

Mathew Herr, an attorney and policy analyst at Disability Rights North Carolina, said the organization appreciates the expansion and welcomes the additional support for students with disabilities, but problems still remain. 

“Schools will still face an artificial cap on the number of students with disabilities they can serve. It’s like a hospital deciding how many people are allowed to get sick,” he said. “At the end of the day, this artificial cap creates a disincentive for appropriately identifying students with disabilities when resources are tight.”

 For a look at some of the highlights of the education portion of the budget, go here and here

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.