For years, teachers across North Carolina have been told one thing and shown another.
They’ve been told the job they do is critical, that they are an essential part of our children’s future. Yet when the time has come to consider their paychecks, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Raleigh have drummed their fingers and looked the other way. Now, N.C. teachers are among the most poorly paid in the country.
In the past year, educators and their supporters have finally found their collective voice. They’ve risen up in Raleigh and across North Carolina, and their protests have been powerful enough to prompt state lawmakers to pass a substantial – but still flawed – teacher pay raise.
The outcry also seemed to rattle local officials. In June, Democrats on the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners approved a surprise referendum for a quarter-penny sales tax hike, most of which would go toward improving the pay of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.
It’s no secret that the referendum was poorly conceived. It was crafted without input from the organizations it would benefit – CMS, the Arts & Science Council, libraries and Central Piedmont Community College. Also left out were the Charlotte Chamber, state lawmakers, and even others on the board of commissioners.
The result was a referendum that addressed a critical education need, but may have ignored other important priorities for Mecklenburg County. It also was clumsily written, with little in the way of explanation of how money would be spent. Even now, voters don’t know precisely which CMS employees will benefit and how.
But Mecklenburg voters are not deciding whether commissioners did their job poorly in June. They’re deciding whether the county should take this opportunity to fund education at a time that it’s desperately needed. The answer is inescapably yes.
It’s impossible to ignore that this might be the last chance Mecklenburg has to use sales tax revenues for education. After commissioners approved the referendum in June, N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho did his best to kill it with a measure that would have capped the county’s sales tax at its current rate.
Rucho failed, but he doesn’t have a history of graciously accepting defeat. Should Mecklenburg fail to pass the sales tax referendum, Rucho might very well attempt to slam the door on future opportunities. A sales tax isn’t the only way to raise revenue for teacher pay, but it’s a valuable option to lose.
A warning: The referendum would only provide a one-time raise. Sales tax revenues in future years would simply pay for the raise we’re giving now. If the economy struggles, commissioners will have to make up for the revenue shortfall. They also must commit to using that revenue for teacher pay, no matter what temptations the future brings. Voters will be watching. So will we.
For now, the calculation is this: Voters have a chance to meet a critical need by supplementing and complementing the pay raise that state lawmakers approved. The money will help keep our teachers in Mecklenburg County classrooms, instead of in classrooms elsewhere or in other jobs altogether. It also will send a message that we want to do more than talk about how much we appreciate our educators. That message is not inconsequential.
The sales tax referendum isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have in front of us. It’s what our educators need. It’s what our teachers deserve. We recommend voting yes.