Angry, but hopeful
The General Assembly finally passed a budget Friday, deciding on pay raises of varying amounts for all teachers, as well as bonuses for other school employees.
Some Lee County educators, though, were less than pleased — especially veteran teachers, who generally got significantly smaller raises than their less-experienced counterparts.
"It's disconcerting to us that you have no respect for the teachers who have proven themselves and who have dedicated their lives," said Vicki Wilkins, a longtime teacher at Southern Lee High School and president of the local chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators.
The raises varied based on years of experience from 0.3 percent to 18.5 percent, with the largest numbers reserved for teachers with five to 10 years of experience. Wilkins said that's great for them, but the legislature shouldn't ignore the 20- and 30-year veterans. She compared it to a college basketball team starting all freshmen, only to find out that they're lost without the seniors' experience and leadership.
"You need [the veterans] to be mentors to the younger teachers," she said.
One such veteran, Sandi Shover, has taught for 20 years, including 17 in North Carolina. A language arts teacher at West Lee Middle School, Shover said she still isn't convinced the Republicans in control of the General Assembly truly value teachers.
"I have looked at [the pay plan] extensively and cursed at it," she said. "Don't get me wrong; I am grateful for any raise because I haven't had a raise in so long. ... [But] if you look at the chart, the raises are all over the place."
Andy Bryan, the superintendent of Lee County Schools, said he believes the raises are a step in the right direction. He also said he understands the strategy of giving larger raises to younger teachers.
"It's certainly important for our new teachers," he said of the raises. "They're the real beneficiaries of this. And that's certainly been an ongoing issue for this state, trying to recruit and retain the best."
As of Thursday, there were still 18 unfilled teaching positions in Lee County — mainly for math, science and career/technical positions — according to John Conway, the district's human resources director. But he said the district has been busy filling openings and ought to be fully staffed soon.
"We've made a lot of progress in the last few weeks," he said. "We're in a much better place than we were."
Speaking to retention issues, Shover said the only thing keeping her in North Carolina is her desire not to uproot her family. She said she wished she could go back in time to 1997, when she chose to leave Pennsylvania for North Carolina.
Some of her college classmates who became teachers in other states "are now making double what I make," she said. "And the cost of living where they are is not double what it is here. They're probably not going to the grocery store at the end of the month and wondering 'Can I pay for what I have in my cart?'"
Part of the deal to raise teacher pay was also a cut to other public education funds. Shover said she's worried for the job security of teacher assistants. She also questioned budget reductions for supplies and textbooks, as well as the elimination of the annual tax-free weekend for school supply shopping, which helped offset recent cuts to corporate and personal income tax rates.
"Certainly many teachers benefited from that tax-free weekend because we spend money on our classrooms," she said. "Last year I spent $300 on my room, and I have a middle school classroom. In elementary school, it's even worse."
Wilkins said she's also concerned about future cuts, adding that she has fielded many calls in the past few days from parents and teachers with similar worries. She said she's still not satisfied with how the legislature views and funds public education, but there's a possibility it could get better.
"We committed ourselves to children in this state," she said. "We're passionate, and right now, a lot of us are very angry, but we're also hopeful."
Bryan also said he wants to see more from state leaders to show these raises are more than a one-time political move, especially with other major issues like tax cuts and Medicaid still looming with the possibility of threatening funding for public education.
"I think what everybody wants to see is that future commitment to education," he said. "Because there certainly are issues out there that the General Assembly is going to have to deal with."