Teachers decry raises for state-level officials

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 05:03 AM

State-level progressive and pro-teacher groups held a press conference this week to criticize raises for two young, relatively inexperienced executive branch workers as hypocritical and politically motivated — and some local teachers were also up in arms about the developing issue.

“If the governor says we need to tighten our belts, it should be across all government,” said Vickie Wilkins, a teacher at Southern Lee High School, who is also president of the Lee County branch of the North Carolina Association of Educators. The NCAE is the closest thing to a teachers’ union in North Carolina, where collective bargaining is outlawed.

Wilkins said Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led N.C. House and Senate sold the budget — which didn’t include any raises for teachers and also cut funding for thousands of classroom jobs — this summer by saying all public sector employees had to share in the burden of the state’s fiscal troubles.

So when two 24-year-old employees in the state Department of Health and Human Services — both of whom were heavily involved with McCrory’s campaign — were awarded more than $20,000 in raises recently, receiving salaries of $85,000 and $87,500 respectively, the NCAE cried foul and called for an investigation.

Wilkins said it’s not only NCAE members who are upset.

“Our students have picked up on it as well,” Wilkins said. “My teacher cadets, who are perhaps future teachers, have picked up on it and are not very happy.”

One longtime educator, West Lee Middle School language arts teacher Sandi Shover, said she doesn’t blame those students.

As for whether she would pursue a career in education now if she weren’t in the field already, Shover said, “No way.” The teacher, who is chairwoman of the school’s language arts department and lead teacher for gifted students, added, “... If I [were] in college right now, I think I would change my major. Because it’s not just the pay, it’s the respect level.”

She said Superintendent Andy Bryan and the Lee County Board of Education have done a good job of trying to protect teachers and make them feel appreciated. The disrespect is from the state, Shover said, as were budget cuts which forced Bryan and the school board to drastically cut funding for supplies and books so that no Lee County teachers or teaching assistants would lose their jobs.

Shover said Tuesday — the sixth school day of the year — that she thought West Lee was already out of printer cartridges and that she has searched high and low for hanging folders with no luck. So she’ll go buy some soon if she can’t find any at home, she said, adding to the $200 she has already spent on supplies for her classroom.

Wilkins noted that unlike teachers, the DHHS employees whose raises are in question almost certainly aren’t expected to buy their own office supplies. And those employees’ salaries are nearly triple the salary of a beginning teacher in North Carolina.

“We would understand, in a better economic situation, perhaps an increase (for the DHHS workers),” Wilkins said. “But given these are different economic times, and that it was hammered home to us that the state has budget problems so we have to tighten our belts, it seems like that skipped a few belt loops.”

A teacher with 20-plus years of experience and a master’s degree — like Shover, for instance — makes slightly more than half of what Ricky Diaz, the 24-year-old DHHS communications director and recent Vanderbilt University graduate who served as McCrory’s press secretary, now makes after his recent 37 percent raise in a position — which reportedly wasn’t advertised when it was vacant.

Neither Diaz nor the other young man in question, DHHS Chief Policy Advisor Matt McKillip, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree in English, have commented on the matter publicly. Shover said it smacks of political patronage and sends all the wrong signals about priorities and hard work.

“I’m almost 24 years in the classroom, and I have a master’s degree,” she said. “... It’s a really startling contrast. It’s like the message is experience doesn’t matter, and what you know doesn’t matter. It’s like: ‘Are you in the right place?’ Because they were in the right place.”