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Senate unveils budget plan

In a press conference and a Senate education appropriations committee today, Senate lawmakers revealed details of their two-year budget plan, setting the stage for eventual negotiations between the House and Senate over which details of whose plan make it into the final spending document.

See the budget bill here. 

See the money report here

The top item for education when talking about the budget is generally teacher salaries, and the Senate plan includes an average 3.5% pay raise over two years for teachers, and a $1,000 bonus for veteran teachers. Senate leaders said that every teacher would receive a raise. The Senate education appropriations committee didn’t take up the pay plans beyond the details released during the press conference. Pay will be taken up more specifically during the full Senate appropriations committee tomorrow.

The full budget release did include the new teacher pay schedule under the Senate plan.

Courtesy of the NCGA
Courtesy of the NCGA

On the face of it, the Senate pay plan contrasts with the House plan, which included a 4.6% pay increase for teachers in the first year of the biennium and an average 6.3% increase over the biennium that is heavily weighted towards veteran teachers. That number in the first year, however, is misleading.

The new teacher pay schedule would start on January 2020 (instead of at the start of the school year as usual). Until then, the only teachers who would get pay increases are teachers who were slated to get step increases under the current salary schedule anyway. And that average pay increase of 4.6% in the first year of the biennium is an annualized number, meaning that it is based on what the number would be if the new House salary schedule was in place for the entire year. But since it’s not, the actual average pay increase is lower than 4.6% in the first year of the biennium.

The Senate teacher pay plan starts at the start of the school year instead of mid-year like the House plan, according to Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, co-chair of the Senate education appropriations committee.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, senior chair of the Senate appropriations committee, said that teachers in North Carolina have gotten a 20 percentage point increase in pay over the last five years while employees in other state agencies have received only a 7.6 percentage point pay raise.

“We did try to prioritize those other state employees,” Brown said during the press conference this morning. 

The Senate budget plan also includes $500 bonuses for teachers with 15-24 years of experience. Teachers with 25 years or more get a bonus of $1,000. Those bonuses don’t factor into the salary increase number given by Senate leaders. 

The Senate plan adds $15 million in both years for principal pay, most of which goes to the base salary. Senate lawmakers leave the principal pay schedule mostly as is, though they have added an incentive program where principals can get a $30,000 salary supplement if they work at low-performing schools in the bottom 5% of the state. Again, details of the principal pay plan weren’t discussed in the Senate education appropriations committee today.

Courtesy of NCGA

Under the house plan, principals would get an average 10% pay increase in the first year of the biennium and assistant principals would get an average 6.3% increase. Again, that raise doesn’t start until mid-year, meaning the actual percent increase in the first year is lower than the numbers given by House leaders (percent increases weren’t given for the Senate principal pay raises today).

Currently, principals are paid based on the size of their school and school growth. They still will be under the new House budget, but their base salary will ultimately also reflect their years of experience. Principals will receive whatever a teacher of similar experience would get plus 25%. Then, size of the school and growth scores would round out the rest of the salary.

The new schedule also adds an extra school size category. Currently, the top of the schedule are principals that have more than 1,300 students. This schedule adds a category for principals who oversee schools with more than 1,600 students. The House budget continues the hold harmless provision that prevents principals who received more under previous schedules from receiving less under the new schedule. A similar provision also appears in the Senate budget plan. 

Similarly to the House budget, the Senate spending plan provides $15 million in new funding for classroom supplies. In the House budget, that extra money would go to each teacher in the state to purchase $145 in classroom supplies, leaving the rest of the funding for districts to make purchases. Under the Senate budget, teachers would get $300 to spend on classroom supplies, meaning that the amount of money districts themselves have for such purposes would fall.

The Senate spending plan also includes money to hire an additional 100 school psychologists in the state. According to Brown, the state currently has 600, and with the extra positions, every district in the state should be able to have a school psychologist now.

The Senate plan includes extra money for a variety of items related to school safety. It includes $10 million recurring in both years and $8.2 million non-recurring in the first year for school mental health support personnel grants. 

The Senate plan includes $6 million recurring in both years of the biennium and $1.7 million non-recurring in the first year for school resource officers.

The Senate budget includes $6.1 million non-recurring for school safety equipment grants in the first year, $4.5 million non-recurring in the first year for school safety training grants, and $4.5 million non-recurring in the first year for students in crisis grants. 

The House plan included $19 million non-recurring in the first year and about $30 million recurring in the second year for school mental health support personnel grants. Other items related to school safety include: 

  • School safety officers: $3 million non-recurring in the first year, and $7.7 million recurring in the second year 
  • School Safety Equipment Grants: $3 million non-recurring in the first year, and $6.1 million non-recurring in the second year
  • School Safety Training Grants: $3 million non-recurring in the first year, and $4.6 million recurring in the second year
  • Students in Crisis Grants: $2 million non-recurring in the first year, and $4.6 million recurring in the second year

Both the House and the Senate budgets provide funding for short-term workforce funding for the community college system, as well as additional funding for career coaches, both of which were legislative asks from the community college system. 

The Senate budget also includes its plan for funding school construction needs around the state. Typically, school construction and repair is a local matter, but because of the large need around the state, both the Senate and the House have proposed competing plans. 

While not necessarily the exact same proposal that already passed the Senate, the budget includes a provision that draws money from funds in a similar manner as the original plan. It includes $4.8 billion over 10 years for new schools and repairs, drawing that funding from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, the Public School Capital Fund, and needs-based capital funding.

The House, on the other hand, has proposed a $1.9 billion bond to meet education construction needs.

The Senate budget also eliminates 13 vacant positions at the state Department of Public Instruction, while adding two school business positions.

When asked about the elimination of the 13 vacant positions, Tillman said that those positions have gone unfilled for more than a year so, he said, the department must not need them. 

“Those positions are gone,” he said. “Gone like the grey goose of winter.” 

A big question going into today was what was going to happen with the $700 million surplus the state found out about after the House had already passed its budget.

Gov. Roy Cooper and others called on the General Assembly to utilize those funds for schools and healthcare, but Senate lawmakers said in the press conference this morning that the bulk of that surplus is going into the rainy day fund. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, reminded the press during the conference that the state had to use $700 million from that fund to deal with disaster recovery. In total, the Senate is adding $1.1 billion to the rainy day fund, and a press release from Senate leaders said that state economists estimate that fund will need at least $2.6 billion if and when another recession rolls around. 

The Senate budget was short on the non-budget related policy provisions which were found in the House budget plan. Whereas the House budget attempted to change the formula for the school performance grades — from an 80/20 split in favor of academic achievement over academic growth to a more balanced ratio — the Senate budget has nothing to say on the issue. 

Berger said that the House would be “wise” to accept the Senate’s budget, but said he doesn’t expect it will be so easy. He also said that he expects Gov. Roy Cooper to have some disagreement over the budget. After the last election, Republicans lost their veto-proof majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, meaning that Cooper could potentially threaten to veto or actually veto the budget in an attempt to influence the direction of state spending. Berger said he did not think Cooper’s disagreements would prevent the state from getting a final budget through, however. 

“North Carolina is enjoying a boom decade under Republican budget and tax policies. More people work in this state than ever before, and they get to keep more of the money they earn. This budget continues the policies that brought about our North Carolina success story, and the budget writers deserve a lot of credit for the long hours they’ve put in to make it happen,” Berger said in a press release. 

Cooper’s spokesperson Ford Porter sent out a statement criticizing the budget shortly after it was released. 

“This budget leaves out Medicaid expansion that would close the health care coverage gap and it shortchanges public schools in exchange for more corporate tax cuts. The Governor hopes to continue working with the House and Senate on a budget that does more to help hard working North Carolinians,” he wrote. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.