TAKE 5: Superintendent: State budget causes local challenges

Aug. 09, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Dr. Andy Bryan, the superintendent of Lee County Schools, about how the state budget will impact teachers and the school system. Bryan became Superintendent of Lee County Schools in July 2013 after serving as associate superintendent since 2006. He and his wife, Debbie, reside in Sanford with their two children.

As with just about any state budget passed by the legislature, there's controversy again this year with teacher pay. What can you tell us about it?

Heading into this legislative session, there was a great deal of conversation about raising teacher salaries. North Carolina was ranked 46th in the nation in teacher salary.

After the governor proposed salary increases for teachers, the N.C. Senate responded by proposing an average 11 percent increase. However, the Senate's proposal came at the expense of several cuts to public schools, including the loss of teacher assistants.

The House responded with a 5 percent average salary increase for teachers with no cuts to teacher assistants.

After several weeks of negotiations, legislators reached a deal that reduced the teacher salary scale from 37 to six steps and dedicated most of the teacher salary increases to the first 10 years of service.

Initial reports indicated that teachers would receive a 7 percent average salary increase. But after a closer reading, that increase also includes money that teachers were already receiving as longevity pay.

Because most of the salary increases are dedicated to the first 10 years of the teacher salary scale, the most experienced teachers received the smallest salary increases.

What is longevity pay?

Longevity pay had traditionally been awarded to state employees after 10 years of service to the state. The bonuses range from 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent based on number of years of employment.

In this budget, the legislature built longevity pay into the raise they gave teachers. Because they folded money teachers already were receiving into the new salary scale, the actual pay raise is smaller than advertised. Teacher raises also were partially funded through cuts to other parts of the education budget.

Obviously, we want to attract and retain new teachers; however, we also want to keep our most experienced teachers in classrooms. This is one of the reasons why teacher raises are such an important issue. North Carolina is losing outstanding teachers to other states because they offer higher salaries.

What can you tell us about cuts/special provisions in this budget for public schools?

Unfortunately, there are significant cuts. Funding for teacher assistants was cut 22 percent. That is the equivalent of 22 positions in Lee County. Knowing that the legislature might eliminate teacher assistants to fund teacher raises, we did not fill vacancies in the spring and summer as they opened up. Consequently, we will handle our teacher assistant cuts through attrition — none of our current teacher assistants will lose a job. State funding also was cut for at-risk students and transportation.

The budget also eliminated supplements for teachers who earn master's degrees. Teachers who had not earned at least one course of credit towards a master's degree prior to August 2013 will no longer be eligible for a supplement when they finish their degree. This will certainly decrease the number of teachers who pursue a master's degree and means that our most educated teachers — as well as our most experienced — will not be rewarded.

The legislature also placed provisions in the budget for the following year. Starting next spring, school districts will no longer get automatic increases to fund growth in school enrollment. Knowing that funding for growth was guaranteed allowed us to recruit and fill teacher positions in the spring. With this change, we will have to wait until after the General Assembly adjourns each year to hire additional teachers. The funding for growth also will have to compete with all the other needs the state has during the budget process. This provision is a major change for school districts and makes the budget process even more difficult.

Finally, this budget eliminates state funding for driver's education courses taught at the high school level for the 2015-16 school year.

How will Lee County Schools deal with the cuts?

We are still receiving the final numbers from the state and working through various scenarios. However, just like last year, when we had heavy cuts from the legislature, our Lee County Board of Education is committed to protecting resources for the classroom.

The staff and I will propose a plan for the board at its next meeting. In the end, we must make the cuts that will make the job of educating our children more difficult. But we are committed to maintaining a quality classroom experience and providing educational support for our children. Our board aspires for all students to graduate with more than a high school diploma.

What future issues do you see with the budget?

The budget situation is still fluid. I learned yesterday that the governor will ask the legislature for technical budget corrections when it meets on August 14.

The governor is recommending that school districts be able to use the average teacher salary — instead of the beginning teacher salary — when trading teaching positions for other allotments. The governor also is recommending a technical correction that would allow school districts to receive planning allotments based on growth. As noted earlier, that is a really big issue for school districts and planning.

There are also a number of issues that will confront next year's legislature. Tax cuts that go into effect in January have created a $200 million hole for the budget next year. Figuring out how to pay for Medicaid continues to be a huge issue.

The real question will be, given all of these serious issues, whether the legislature makes a long-term commitment to public education that will keep and attract the best teachers in our classrooms and support North Carolina's children.