Superintendents to N.C. Senate: Don’t hurt schools to raise teacher pay

Superintendents across North Carolina spoke out Wednesday urging lawmakers not to cut money for education as the economy recovers.

“Times have been tough, but times are better and schools need to be better,” Gaston County Superintendent Jeff Booker said.

He joined Heath Morrison of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Mary Ellis of Union County Schools and Beverly Emory of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools for a news conference at Charlotte’s Mallard Creek Elementary. Other leaders of the state’s 10 largest districts held similar events around the state.

The message: Thanks for getting serious about raising teacher pay, but don’t take the money from other important aspects of education.

“How these increases occur matters, and it matters a great deal,” Morrison said.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget calls for 2 percent raises for most teachers and larger bumps for those in the early years of their career. The Senate plan provides bigger raises for teachers willing to sign away tenure, but pays for those raises with cuts to teacher assistants, transportation and central offices. The House has not yet weighed in on the 2014-15 budget.

Morrison said the 10 big districts whose superintendents have formed a coalition represent 43 percent of North Carolina’s public school enrollment. He said the Senate budget would bring almost $130 million in cuts to those districts, including the loss of 3,152 teacher assistants, 425 teacher jobs that were promised in the two-year budget approved last summer, $13.2 million for transportation and $1.4 million for central offices.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said last week the budget makes tough choices to pull off a plan for teacher raises that costs $468 million. If all teachers were to accept the new pay scale without tenure, the average salary would rise $5,200 a year, to $51,198, moving North Carolina from 48th to 27th in the nation.

“We want to put education dollars where they’re going to do the most good for our kids,” Berger said. “Everybody’s goal is to improve student outcomes. The one thing we can do to improve student outcomes the most is to have a high-quality teacher in the classrooms.”

But Emory said teachers will be undermined if they come back to larger classes and fewer assistants, with kids facing longer bus rides. “Teachers deserve salary increases without reductions to the very classrooms they support,” she said.

Morrison suggested that legislators revisit the budget and work with educators to find better ways to pay for raises, such as scaling back on tax cuts approved last year.

“Our request has consistently been: ‘Please bring us to the table,’ ” Morrison said. “We all know how to make tough choices.”

Ellis noted that Union County’s unemployment rate is 5.3 percent, close to what’s considered full employment. But her district could face cuts similar to what hit during the worst of the recession, she said.

“The economy is on the upswing,” Ellis said. “I just really scratch my head when I think about the Draconian cuts that are being proposed.”

The four superintendents represent the political spectrum: Booker said he’s a registered Republican, Ellis and Emory are Democrats and Morrison is unaffiliated.

“We’re not trying to pick a side,” Booker said.

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