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Perspective | $6.5 billion state surplus: Let’s meet this moment by investing in our people

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What should North Carolina legislators do with the $6.5 billion surplus projected for our state over the next two years? Many of the public conversations pivot on whether North Carolina should spend the surplus, lower tax rates, or send refunds to taxpayers. 

As your North Carolina Teachers of the Year and Principals of the Year for 2019, 2020, and 2021, we believe now is the time to invest deeply in public education, beginning with the educators and staff who are the lifeblood of our public schools. When we invest in our human capital, we improve our ability to retain high quality personnel, to recruit talented new teachers and staff into our schools, and to improve working conditions.

How we got here

With no state budget in place for the last two years, North Carolina has a large fund balance. With federal COVID-19 relief dollars flowing into our state by the billions, and projected state revenue for the next two years far in excess of previous forecasts, our state now has $6.5 billion extra dollars on the table for discussion. But it’s complicated. Some of these dollars are non-recurring, while other “restricted” funds can only be spent in certain ways.  

We are grateful that both the Senate and governor’s proposed budgets use federal dollars as well as repurposed state funds to provide state employees with one-time bonuses. But we also must seize this unprecedented opportunity to fix our teacher salary scale, which will require recurring funds.

Starting teacher pay

Starting base teacher pay has not increased in North Carolina in five years. The Senate’s budget released earlier this week increases starting teacher pay just $9 a month. North Carolina can do better for our starting teachers, especially if we hope to make our profession attractive to high school graduates surveying their career options.

We believe a beginning base salary of $40,000 per year for teachers should be the starting point for our teacher salary scale. According to the World Population Review, 34 states have starting teacher salaries below $40,000, including North Carolina.

We propose all teachers with 0 – 4 years of experience be paid no less than $40,000 per year.

It is important to remember that local school systems can offer supplements to teachers in addition to their state base pay to account for variances in local costs of living. However, according to the most recent NC Public Schools Statistical Profile, the average local teacher supplement in 104 of our 115 traditional school systems is less than $5,000, 15 counties have less than $1,000 average supplement, and six counties have no local supplement. This is why base teacher pay truly matters across our state. 

Let’s make a commitment that no teacher in North Carolina makes less than $40,000 per year. 

How can we expect to recruit the best and brightest into our profession–and attract them to high needs areas like rural North Carolina–if we only pay them $35,090 their first year? No wonder so many new teachers already work second jobs or leave the profession within the first three years to pursue careers that pay a better living wage.

If I am the parent of a kindergarten student with a first year teacher, do I want my child’s teacher working a second job in the evenings to make ends meet? We absolutely must move starting teacher pay forward. A $9 per month step does not invest in our students.

While we are at it, let’s make sure that teachers and principals hired after Jan. 1, 2021, are provided the same health care coverage in retirement extended to their colleagues. Our state benefits, including health care and retirement, are critical incentives for educators to remain in our profession.

Teacher salary scale

Our North Carolina educators just finished the most challenging year in our state’s public education. With no pay raises for the past two years, and with a $6.5 billion surplus on the table, our educators deserve a substantial step increase at every level of the pay scale. 

This is not just an issue of average compensation. It is an issue of recruitment and retention. Other than retirement, the most common reason for our state’s teachers leaving our profession is “career change.” 

Let’s look at the numbers. The Senate’s budget proposal has an average 3% salary increase over the course of the biennium. The Governor’s budget proposes an average 10% salary increase over the same time. Inflation is projected to be 4.6% for the next two years. We propose a compromise between the Senate and Governor’s pay plans.

In addition to our proposed $40,000 starting pay for teachers in years 0 – 4, we also propose teachers with five or more years of experience receive a 7% pay increase over the biennium at each step of the pay scale.

State legislators have an opportunity during this budget cycle to make North Carolina’s teachers the highest paid in the southeastern United States (ahead of Georgia). Imagine the message this would send to high school students considering teaching as a career, to private sector employees considering a lateral entry path to teaching, and to our veteran teachers. And imagine the investment it would make in our students’ learning.

We have done this before

 A few years ago, state legislators recognized that our average school principal pay ranked last in the Southeast and near the bottom nationally. Legislators deserve a lot of credit for reforming the principal pay schedule in 2017 with substantial investments along with a new structure based on school size and performance. Average principal pay increased $19,000 over a three-year period, placing North Carolina now third in the Southeast. Additionally, a $30,000 bonus structure was created to incentivize high-performing principals to work in high needs schools.  

North Carolina legislators proved in 2017 that they value school leadership. Let’s prove now in 2021 that we value our teachers by moving the pay scale substantially forward, starting with $40,000 base pay for all teachers and a 7% increase at every step on the salary scale for teachers with 5 – 30 years of service. Let’s do this for our educators and for our kids!

Let’s not forget our classified employees

Various proposals are circulating to improve compensation for our classified employees. The Senate budget includes a $13 an hour minimum, and Gov. Cooper’s budget sets the mark at $15 an hour in line with most other state employees.

As North Carolina Teachers and Principals of the Year, we voice our support for improving compensation for our classified employees at every level. Everyone from the bus garage to the boardroom who interacts with and advocates for students is an educator. Our bus drivers who leave home in the dark are the first school employees to greet students at the bus stop. Our child nutrition workers make sure that a healthy and tasty breakfast and lunch are available for every child. Our custodians take pride in making sure our classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms are clean and sanitized. Our data managers, bookkeepers, office staff, and so many others help to make our schools great places to work and learn. We support any pay plan that increases our ability to recruit, compensate, and retain our classified employees. 

We propose our legislators provide for a $15 an hour minimum for our North Carolina classified employees and the same bonus structure provided for teachers.

We know that our legislators are considering many competing priorities during this budget cycle.

Our request is that our state leaders place the highest premium on creating a pay plan that works for all teachers and school staff across our great state. Elevating starting teacher pay to $40,000, providing a 7% step increase to all teachers with 5 – 30 years of service, and setting a $15 minimum for classified employees would move us in the right direction.

Investing in school staff pays dividends for children. 

It’s not about cost.

It’s about value.

It’s about investment in our collective future.

Matt Bristow-Smith

Matt Bristow-Smith is principal at Edgecombe Early College High and the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.

Mariah Morris

Mariah Morris is the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She proudly teaches second grade at West Pine Elementary School in Moore County where she integrates STEM into her student-centered curriculum.

Maureen Stover

Maureen Stover is a high school science teacher at the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

Kisha Clemons

Kisha Clemons is principal at Shuford Elementary in Newton-Conover City Schools and the 2020 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.

Eugenia Floyd

Eugenia Floyd is the 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She is a teacher at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Elena Ashburn

Elena Ashburn is the 2021 Wells Fargo State Principal of the Year. She is the principal of Broughton High School in Raleigh.