Teacher Pay Battle Snags North Carolina Budget Negotiations

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If you’re a public school teacher in North Carolina, it’s hard not to feel like a political pawn in the ongoing yet-to-be-settled budget fight that continues to sluggishly unfold in Raleigh.

Teacher pay remains a big stumbling block for state leaders who know that North Carolina ranks almost last among states in teacher salaries — $10,000 below the national average — and are facing increased public pressure amid headlines that teachers are either quitting in droves and are being recruited by other states that pay more.

And when news was tweeted out that one celebrated Wake County teacher was moving to Ohio, North Carolina Democrats, according to the News & Observer, used it as an example of how Republicans who control both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Mansion have been unable to make the state a good environment for public education.

Among Republicans, there’s been plenty of intra-party discord between Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders trying to reconcile lingering budget differences for the new fiscal year that started July 1.

The governor had been previously pushing for 3 percent raises for teachers while keeping teaching assistants, positions that Senate leaders want to slash. McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is challenging Democrat Kay Hagan for her U.S. Senate seat this fall, have reportedly settled on 6 percent raises for teachers.

But Senate leaders have been steadfast on their plan for larger teacher salary raises. They originally called for an 11 percent pay hike for full-time teachers, paid for by cutting $223 million for teaching assistants in second- and third-grade classrooms and scaling back Medicaid eligibility, according to the according to the News & Record.

The jobs of more than 7,000 teaching assistants are at risk, according to NC Policy Watch.

In a statement released by the governor’s office on Thursday, McCrory pledged to veto the Senate’s budget plan:

This morning, I received a call from Speaker Tillis and they have moved to a 6 percent raise. In an effort to come to a resolution, but with some concerns, I have agreed to accept that position. I've moved from a 3 percent raise to a 6 percent raise for teachers.

We have a plan that doesn't raise taxes, provides meaningful raises for teachers without cutting thousands of teacher assistants and avoids ending critical services to the blind, elderly, disabled and those with Alzheimer's disease.

This is a long-term, sustainable and affordable plan in which I stand with our teachers, our students, our principals, our superintendents, business leaders, House Democrats and House Republicans. The Senate is currently standing by themselves with no visible support outside of the Beltline of our state capital.

I will veto the latest Senate plan or any plan that resembles it because I know of no financial way we can go beyond the House proposal without eliminating thousands of teacher assistants, cutting Medicaid recipients and putting at risk future core state services.

Senate leaders point out that their teacher pay-raise plan would put North Carolina ahead of salaries in neighboring states.

North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement released by his office on Thursday that he was surprised by McCory’s demands and noted that the governor has not been able to sustain any vetoes in the Senate:

I’m disappointed by the governor’s threat to veto the largest teacher pay raise in state history and surprised by his demand for a budget without cuts to teacher assistants and Medicaid — given that his own budget included almost $20 million in cuts to teacher assistants along with significant, though ultimately unachievable, cuts to Medicaid.

The most dramatic conflict over teacher pay in Raleigh this past week came when Senate conferees suddenly walked out of a budget meeting when a one senator objected to a House representative introducing educators and superintendents who were to speak about the impact of teacher assistant layoffs on students.

The North Carolina teacher pay issue has been contentious all budget season. One previous House plan would have tied teacher pay to projected increases in revenue from the state lottery.

Meanwhile, commissioners in Wake County, home to Raleigh and many of its suburbs, will vote on a plan in August to put a sales tax referendum on the November ballot that would, if approved, steer a quarter-cent sales tax increase to teacher pay raises in the county.

As the Raleigh Public Record reported, leaders in Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, and Guilford County, home to Greensboro, have already authorized similar ballot proposals that aim to boost local teacher pay.

Budget negotiations will continue on Monday.

(Image via Konstantin L/Shutterstock.com)

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