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Stam shows rocky road ahead on teacher pay

Only days after Gov. Pat McCrory’s pledge to get N.C. teachers a needed pay increase, one Republican legislative leader was showing how difficult that might be to get through the state legislature.

On Thursday, House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam’s office sent a press release explaining how N.C. teachers had the “opportunity” for salary increases in the current year’s budget. All it would take is school districts taking advantage of “flexibility” lawmakers have given them to use state money designated for one purpose – gifted students or career technical education, for instance – and use it for another – like paying teachers more. Or, school districts could use money they get from their local governments to boost teacher pay.

Got that? Problem solved. There’s really no need for the governor and legislature to carve out a plan to commit resources to increase teacher pay.

Stam’s office even included a helpful list of where the state’s school districts’ could legally rob Peter to pay Paul. Stam points out, also helpfully, that the legislature last year opened several areas that had been off-limits for such transfers. This includes funds that had been restricted for disadvantaged students, at-risk students, limited English proficient students and low-wealth schools.

So, want to pay teachers more? Raid those coffers and do it.

It would be wrong and unfair for lawmakers to punt this issue to county governments and local school districts. For one thing, in low-wealth counties, local governments often can’t and don’t provide additional funds for education. By relying on them to pay teachers adequately, lawmakers would be intentionally creating a situation where poorer communities could not hope to attract and keep good teachers. The recession has caused even counties in better economic shape to pull back on education funding. Moreover, forcing school districts to take money from programs teachers need to do their jobs well only creates more problems for the teachers and their students.

Stam’s press release, though, used the state’s two largest school districts – Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg – as examples of how districts can use what they already have to pay teachers more.

“Each of the 115 LEA’s can pay for salary supplements from their local supplemental funds,” Stam’s office wrote. “For example the Wake County School Board has a $1,170,329,591 billion [sic] budget, of which $328 million comes from the County. It would cost the county about $5 million to provide a 1 percent salary supplement to each of the LEA’s classroom teachers.”

Stam’s office cited CMS and its Project LIFT program for “using flexibility of local funds” to give teachers salary supplements. Said the press release: “While Project Lift receives supplemental grant funding, that supplemental grant funding was not used to provide salary supplements for teachers. Salary supplements for teachers were paid for by re-apportioning local funds.”

The release ends with this: “There are 95,000 teachers in North Carolina. They are in every public school and in every classroom!!! Each teacher can help his or her LEA run the schools more efficiently. Those savings can be converted to extra pay for teachers under existing law.”

Stam isn’t alone in this view. The governor’s budget last year called for a pay increase for teachers, though meager at 1 percent. And state lawmakers rejected that.

So McCrory’s belated pledge to put in place a teacher pay plan that doesn’t put a “Band-Aid” on the issue with a small, one-time boost – a plan that would make North Carolina “competitive” – was welcome.

But Stam’s press release shows that’s not a done deal yet. Getting the legislature on board could be a chore.

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