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Houston school district aiming to recruit North Carolina’s teachers

North Carolina teachers struggling with low salaries and repeated pay freezes are being lured from the state with an appealing offer: For a substantial raise, come teach in Texas.

The Houston Independent School District held a job recruitment fair in uptown Charlotte on Friday, offering higher pay and benefits to teachers whose salaries are among the lowest in the nation. District representatives at the four-hour event were prepared to interview and make job offers to instructors certified in any of four “critical shortage areas”: secondary math, secondary science, bilingual education and special education.

The Friday event capped off a week of recruiting in North Carolina, following similar events held in Greensboro and Raleigh.

With debate still swirling in the General Assembly over their pay raises for next year and no budget finalized, teachers say the Houston offer – a $49,100 starting salary – is enticing, particularly for younger ones willing to move.

“We’re all in teaching because of the students – that’s why we do what we do,” said Beth Linkston, a teacher at Olympic High who did not attend the fair. “But when you can do the exact same thing, still change lives and still make a difference in the world but make $20,000 more a year, you’re going to go.”

The average starting salary for a North Carolina teacher is $30,778, more than $5,000 below the national average and lower than all neighboring states. It’s a result of five years of pay freezes that let the state slip to 46th highest in the U.S. for 2012-13, according to the National Education Association. The ranking is projected to slip to 48th for 2013-14.

But as recently as 2008, North Carolina was ranked 25th in the nation for average teacher salary and led both South Carolina and Virginia.

Pay increases seem likely for next year, as both the state Senate and House have built them into their budget proposals. But they can’t agree on how much they should increase. In the most recent plans, the Senate has suggested an 8 percent increase, while the House wants 6 percent.

But teachers say the proposed raises aren’t enough.

“In the past, it would have been a waste of time for Houston to come to North Carolina,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District. “Now, there are a significant number of teachers who will say, ‘You know what? I’m going to take a look at it.’ 

Pulling from North Carolina

Frustration over North Carolina’s low teacher wages has gained national attention, making the state an easy target for districts such as Houston that are looking to hire.

In May, the district held a similar recruitment event in Raleigh that sought to recruit teachers for all areas, not just those in critical shortage. Hundreds attended and 20 were hired. They’ll start in Houston when schools reopen in the fall.

Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Houston schools, said the district wanted to return to the state to take advantage of the high turnout it had seen the first time. There’s also a vested personal interest: Houston Superintendent Terry Grier is a North Carolina native and used to be in charge of Guilford County Schools.

“It’s easy pickings to go to North Carolina,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “The salary scale looks phenomenal to them.”

Edwards knows Grier – he hosts an annual digital training program that the Houston superintendent came to Mooresville for last week. He said while some of his colleagues have called Grier’s recruiting obtrusive, it’s actually partly intended to help North Carolina teachers fight against the legislature.

“It’s leveraging with the elected officials to say we need to step up and address this issue, or our teachers are going to leave and go to other states,” he said.

More and more of them are doing so in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools – 93 in the first five months of this year. That compares with eight in 2009-10 and 27 last year.

As they go, they’re leaving behind vacancies and a heavier workload for colleagues.

“Here we are, less than 33 days before school opens, and there’s so much uncertainty in the state,” said Mary McCray, a retired teacher and president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

“We’re looking at filling more teaching positions and hoping to have a highly qualified person in every classroom at the start of school, and right now we don’t know.”

Linkston said if it were earlier in her career, she would take the Houston offer “in a heartbeat.” But she’s six years away from retirement, so she’s staying put – and she said she’s worried about how this exodus of teachers will affect schools.

She said she sees a cycle starting: Teachers leave, so more substitutes are hired, and it puts more pressure on everyone in the school.

“For the teachers that are left behind, the load we’re going to have to carry is what concerns me,” she said.

Higher pay, harder job

The pay increase for a teacher moving to Houston would be substantial, even when factoring in a slightly higher cost of living. (According to CNN Money, someone making $45,000 a year in Charlotte would need to make $47,098 in Houston to have a comparable salary.)

But with the larger salary comes a more demanding job, Fallon said.

The Houston district is the largest in Texas and seventh-largest in the nation, with more than 211,000 students and about 11,000 teachers. It’s an inner-city area whose schools are predominantly minority, with 62 percent Latino students – many of them first-generation, Fallon said.

And under new education regulations, teachers are now evaluated on their students’ test scores – a change, Fallon said, that’s wildly unpopular.

“Honestly, we’re not an easy district to work for by any means,” she said.

With such large numbers, Reed, the district spokeswoman, said there are always teachers retiring and leaving who need to be replaced. They currently have about 250 vacancies and are looking to “grow the pool,” she said.

Fallon said the active recruitment efforts should send a message to North Carolina’s elected officials.

“You better get your salaries in line and treat your teachers a little better,” she said, “because I’m sure if we get a lot of luck recruiting, we won’t be the only school district down there.”

Cassella: 704-358-5384; Twitter: @mmcassella
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