CARY — Calling it a test of the community’s political will, the Wake County school board unanimously approved a budget proposal Tuesday that asks for a $39.3 million increase in local funding to support pay raises for teachers.
Also on Tuesday, the board received news that repair work on the Beltline will not result, as originally feared, in changes in school times for multiple schools this fall. School administrators recommended new times for five schools but said those changes are not related to the Interstate 40 work.
Most of the heated rhetoric was over the budget proposal’s call for the Wake County Board of Commissioners to fund an across-the-board 3.5 percent pay raise for all school employees.
“I’m not interested in having an average school district or an average quality of life,” school board member Bill Fletcher said. “We want to have an excellent school district to help continue to support our excellent quality of life in our community. To do that we need to make sure our teachers are going to be compensated properly.”
Board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said that Wake is at a “watershed” moment on whether the community will support public education.
“Average is not good enough for us,” he said. “We have the wherewithal to do better by our teachers. The question is going to be if we have the political will to do better by our teachers.”
Joe Bryan, vice chairman of the board of commissioners, said in an interview after the meeting that the school board’s request will have to be balanced against competing needs such as operating libraries, having enough sheriff’s deputies and maintaining the social safety net.
Bryan said the $39.3 million increase, the equivalent of a 3-cent increase on the property tax rate, is a lot to ask taxpayers who already face a 4.5-cent tax increase to finance the school bond construction issue approved in October.
“It’s certainly going to be an uphill climb,” he said. “It’s a big lift to ask for coming off the heels of the recession.”
Last month, Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill unveiled a $1.3 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. It was his first budget proposal since being hired in June.
Merrill wants $366 million from the county, a 12 percent increase over the current allotment. Merrill said the increase will help the state’s largest school system begin recovering from the cuts made during the recession and the slow recovery since then.
The extra $39.3 million would pay for items such as expanding the number of students served in pre-kindergarten programs, hiring literacy coaches to work with struggling students, giving additional money to high-poverty schools and hiring graduation coaches to help keep students from dropping out.
But the most attention has been given to Merrill’s $29 million plan to give across-the-board pay raises. It’s the first step toward Merrill’s goal to raise Wake’s average teacher salary of $45,512 to the national average of $56,383 – an increase he has said would require an additional $130 million in local dollars by 2020.
A beginning teacher in Wake gets $35,189 a year. Most of the pay comes from the state, with the county supplementing the base pay.
School leaders said they’re only trying to move pay back to 2008 levels. Since 2008, teacher pay increased with a single 1.2 percent raise, while inflation has measured 8 percent and health care costs have gone up as much as 39 percent.
“This is not a raise,” said school board member Jim Martin. “This is barely catch-up.”
School leaders pointed to the resignations of more than 600 teachers by midyear, a 41 percent increase compared with the same time last school year. Benton predicted there will be “monumental defections from the teacher ranks this summer.”
“We can’t say to young people today that you will have a living wage if you choose to work in our classrooms,” he said. “And that’s frightening.”
While the budget was adopted, the board held off until May 6 on approving the bell schedules for the 2014-15 school year to give more time for public comment. The proposed changes:
• Durant Road Elementary and Durant Road Middle in Raleigh shift 15 minutes earlier, moving to an 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. schedule.
• Green Elementary in Raleigh starts 50 minutes later, moving to an 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. time.
• Kingswood Elementary in Cary starts 10 minutes earlier, moving to a 9:05 a.m.-3:35 p.m. time.
• West Lake Elementary in Apex begins five minutes earlier, going to a 7:40 a.m.-2:20 p.m.
David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said an analysis conducted by N.C. State’s Institute for Traffic Research and Education showed that the road work that will begin later this year on the busy 8-mile Interstate 40 Beltline section across South Raleigh won’t require changes in school times.