CARY — The Wake County school system intends to offer hiring bonuses of up to $1,500 to entice hundreds of teachers to sign up for fall positions in such areas as special education, math and science.
The school board Tuesday approved setting aside $898,000 for the budget year that begins in July to cover the bonuses that school leaders say are needed to help the district be competitive in attracting teachers for the most difficult-to-fill positions.
The bonuses were approved the same day that the board held a public hearing on the fiscal year budget.
In a step toward finalizing the budget, the board approved the plan that would provide a bonus of $1,500 for new special-education teachers and $1,000 for new teachers in math, science, health occupations and family and consumer science.
An individual’s bonus would be split into two increments that would be paid if the new teacher is still employed by the district in September and February.
Math, science and special education have traditionally been among the hardest teaching positions to fill. But school administrators say it will be even more difficult this year with new challenges facing the recruitment process. Unlike prior years, Wake won’t be able to offer new teachers tenure or extra pay for having a master’s degree.
Teachers ‘at a crossroads’
Some school board members expressed concern about giving the perception that some teachers are more valuable than others. Superintendent Jim Merrill said the district is “bleeding” in all areas, but the supply of teachers is smallest in the fields where the bonuses would be offered.
School board member Bill Fletcher cited the example of a school that lost three teachers last year to businesses in Research Triangle Park that offered a 50 percent increase in salary.
“The reality is, we as a community have to understand that our teachers have to be paid at a commensurate level with the market standard, not just what other teachers get paid,” he said. “We’re competing with the Ciscos and the GlaxoSmithKlines.”
Several speakers at the budget hearing backed Merrill’s call for asking the Wake County Board of Commissioners for a $39.3 million funding increase in the coming year, most of which would go toward raising pay for all school employees by 3.5 percent.
“I’m at a crossroads,” said Joshua Gallagher, a teacher at Wake Forest Middle School, who works two part-time jobs, including one as a custodian at a local health club. “I love teaching. But then when it’s 10:30 at night and I’m scrubbing a toilet or cleaning a urinal, I start to think that maybe I can do something else and make more money.”
A recurring theme Tuesday from speakers, school administrators and school board members was that teachers are underpaid, both in Wake County and North Carolina. The state ranks 46th in the nation in average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.
‘Precious essential talent pool’
The centerpiece of Merrill’s budget is his proposal that the district seek $29 million more from the county to give an across-the-board pay raise of 3.5 percent to all 18,000 district employees. Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed raising salaries for beginning teachers statewide, but Merrill said that a local raise would send a strong message to employees.
Merrill’s long-term goal is to raise Wake’s average teacher salary of $45,512 to the national average of $56,383 – an increase he says would require an additional $130 million in local dollars by 2020.
“We can’t treat our precious essential talent pool of teachers as low-wage workers,” said Heather Koons, a Raleigh parent.
Merrill, who was hired by the board in June, says it’s time to begin making up for the cuts that the district made because of the recession and the slow recovery since then.
“It’s time to bring Wake County schools to where we were 10 years ago,” said Vickie Adamson, a Raleigh parent. “We can do it.”
Speakers also praised other parts of Merrill’s budget, including his proposals to expand prekindergarten programs and literacy efforts.
Tax hike a budget sticking point
The school board held its first work session Tuesday on Merrill’s $1.3 billion operating budget. Much of the focus as the board continues to review the plan is Merrill’s request for $366 million from the county – a 12 percent increase from the current amount.
While the board won’t officially vote on the budget until May, several board members praised the proposal as necessary for moving the state’s largest school system forward.
“While this isn’t the budget we all might like to do things like make sure we clean our schools every day, have teaching assistants back in all the classrooms, it’s a step very much in the right direction, particularly with teacher salaries,” said school board member Jim Martin. “We absolutely need community support.”
School board member Susan Evans said raising teacher pay will give Wake the best teachers and “translate into a positive effort for student achievement.”
“I think it’s important for the public to recognize that the things that we are focusing on are the things that we know make a difference in the classroom,” she said.
Evans also said that the $39 million increase isn’t that large when you factor in inflation since 2008.
But that could be a hard argument to make to commissioners who are leery of giving the school system that large an increase when it would require a property tax increase on top of the one that will be needed to pay off the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October.