N.C. teachers fight to restore bonus losses

When teachers across North Carolina saw their annual performance bonus cut this year, most didn't know it was coming. Even lobbyists and advocates close to the political negotiations didn't anticipate the reduction.

They don't want it to happen again.

Only weeks into the school year and months away from the next legislative session, teachers statewide have called and e-mailed state lawmakers and contacted the state's largest teachers group, the N.C. Association of Educators.

Hundreds have contacted Democratic Sen. Steve Goss, a former teacher, persuading him to work on legislation to restore the 30-percent cut from 2007-08 bonuses.

“The state will be making a powerful statement if, even in challenging economic times, we pay the bonuses as was promised,” said Goss, of Watauga County.

The state has granted bonuses for 11 years at the maximum amount allocated by law, the dollar amount based on schools' growth and performance on standardized tests. The incentive money awarded for 2007-2008 should appear in checks this month for eligible school staff.

Goss said the wording of the law outlining the program is unclear, and he wants it changed so teachers receive the amount they were told to expect.

He fears there could be problems retaining and hiring new teachers if the bonuses aren't paid.

But at least one policy analyst said the problem goes deeper than funding.

The testing program needs an overhaul, said Terry Stoops, an education analyst with the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank.

He said there is no consistent formula for how much bonus money must be set aside by lawmakers in the annual budget.

“If bonuses are going to be a regular part of (the) pay system, have it be a recurring expense at a set amount that grows with inflation,” Stoops said.

Most teachers learned about the cuts in August – a month after Gov. Mike Easley signed the state budget.

Lawmakers negotiating the budget said their hands were tied by the sagging economy, so Easley signed a budget bill that cut by more than half the 7 percent pay raise he sought for teachers and didn't include full funding for the program, dubbed the ABCs of Public Education.

The budget allowed state educators to spend up to $94.3 million for the program, less than the $107 million sought by the State Board of Education to fully fund the bonuses.

About 77 percent of North Carolina's nearly 110,000 certified school staff were expected to receive some bonus to bump up their salary.

Teachers made an average $43,922 in the 2005-2006 school year, compared with the national average of $49,109, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.