Veteran teachers criticize pay plan in proposed state budget

Veteran teachers strongly criticized Thursday the teacher pay plan that’s part of the proposed North Carolina budget, saying the salaries they would receive don’t measure up to the promises made.

Teachers would get an average raise of 7 percent, but younger teachers fare far better than peers with decades of experience. The plan also ends the current system of longevity pay – a lump sum payment each year based on how long a teacher had served.

“It’s unfair that the state gets to take away a benefit we were told we would get after being employed for so many years,” said Racine Cunningham, a first-grade teacher at Landsdowne Elementary in south Charlotte. “It’s like the state is saying here’s the raise you should have, but you got that, so I’m taking this.”

Legislature leaders unveiled the budget compromise Wednesday, touting what they said amounted to the largest pay hike for educators in the state’s history. Details weren’t released until late Wednesday night, and didn’t reach many legislators’ hands until Thursday.

The N.C. Senate voted to tentatively approve the plan Thursday evening.

The compromise ended weeks of tension between the N.C. House and Senate. The Senate had originally called for 11 percent teacher raises accompanied by dramatic cuts to teacher assistant positions.

Under the new proposal, teachers at all experience levels will get a raise this year – though percentage increases vary widely. Instead of pay increasing each year, base salaries would normally increase every five years.

Because of the end of the longevity pay system, paychecks won’t get much larger for some longtime teachers. For example, a teacher entering his 30th year in the classroom would receive only $143 more, a 0.3 percent raise. That’s because the new cap on base salary will be $50,000 instead of continuing to increase with tenure.

“This plan picks winners and losers in the teaching profession,” said N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator. “If you’ve been teaching longer than 25 years, it seems we’re trying to push you out.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators and other teacher lobbying groups reacted strongly to the proposal.

“It disrespects our veteran educators, quite honestly,” said Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators and a Guilford County educator. “It’s a regressive salary schedule, we feel, and not a commitment to raising teacher pay to the national average.”

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, said teachers are not losing their longevity pay. Instead, it is worked into the base salary and thus paid out over the course of the year. Auth said the North Carolina Association of Educators was pushing a “myth” that was confusing teachers.

Younger teachers fare better

Teachers with less time on the job fare better under the proposal. Starting pay moves from $30,800 to $33,000. In the fifth year, pay moves to $36,500.

Under the proposal, teachers entering their fifth or sixth year will receive the largest raises, at 18.5 percent.

Under the old system, teachers weren’t eligible for longevity pay until their 10th year.

But the proposal doesn’t provide all that younger teachers have asked for. It doesn’t restore extra pay for teachers who complete a master’s program, a system that ended last year. Teachers who had already gotten a pay bump for a master’s degree keep their extra pay.

Candice Brasington said she recently moved to the Charlotte area and plans to begin a master’s program with hopes to become a teacher.

“I’m wondering, will it even be worth it?” she said. “I am really questioning if I should go into further debt for my master’s degree in teaching or find another industry altogether.”

CMS did not offer any comment on the proposal Thursday or describe how it would affect the district. Spokeswoman Yaviri Escalera said CMS is still reviewing the budget.

Gov. Pat McCrory, speaking after an appearance at the new Charlotte Premium Outlets, said his office was still reviewing the budget but that it appears to be within the parameters he set out, which included “reasonable teacher pay raises,” according to video from Time Warner Cable News. Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.