Wake mayors, county commissioner suggest raising sales tax for teacher pay

mhankerson@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2014 

Wake County officials looking for ways to increase teacher pay have landed on an idea moving along in other parts of the state: increasing sales tax and using the extra revenue for teachers’ salaries.

According to an email sent to Wake County mayors from Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, the group wants to see a referendum on the November ballot for a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would fund teacher pay.

Killen’s email said he is working on a resolution that will be shared among the mayors.

The mayors meet as a group – the Wake County Mayors Association – and any actions they take must be unanimous, Killen said. He said he will draft the resolution because he is the only attorney in the group but that all of the county’s mayors are on board with the idea.

“We need to pay our teachers as well as or better than everybody else, because I think we have higher expectations than most places,” Killen said.

County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan also has asked to discuss the possibility of a quarter-cent sales tax for teacher pay at the next commissioners meeting on July 7.

She said asking voters to raise the sales tax is not a new practice and that many counties have used it in the past to help with education costs.

The ability to request a quarter-cent sales tax increase was approved in state legislation in 2007. Since then, referendums have been held in 59 counties, including two already this year in Davidson and Brunswick counties. Of the 94 referendums, 27 have passed, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

“We’ve just sort of started thinking about this,” Sullivan said of Wake County. “Tax increases are always a last resort, but if you look at the issue of teacher pay, our state is at the bottom at the rankings.

“Even though I believe it is the General Assembly’s responsibility to get us back up to the national average, the county does have some responsibility to retain and recruit the best teachers.”

In Guilford and Mecklenburg counties, local officials are pushing for a sales tax increase to help fund teacher pay. The first hurdle is to get the referendum on the November ballot, as noted in Killen’s email.

Both Mecklenburg and Guilford voters will see the referendum on their ballots this November.

In Guilford, commissioners are looking at a quarter-cent increase in sales tax, adding 25 cents to every $100 of purchases. It would increase the tax from 6.75 cents to 7 cents on the dollar.

Guilford’s county manager estimated that would create $14 million for more education funding.

Wake now has the same sales tax rate as Guilford. According to Sullivan, Wake could create an additional $28 million for educational costs, which Sullivan said she would like to put toward teacher salary supplements.

“My concern is that if you’re 22 and you’ve graduated ... $2,000 (more a year) is significant,” she said. “I don’t want to have any of these high quality teachers we could have come teach in our schools all going to Mecklenburg and Guilford.”

Joe Bryan, vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners, however, thinks there are better options to look at increasing teacher pay that wouldn’t involve another tax increase.

Bryan said residents in Wake County are already looking at about a $100 tax increase with the budget the board passed. He said there are options that need to be explored before adding to citizens’ taxes.

“It certainly appears to be a little early until we know what the state is going to do (and) until that fund balance issue (with Wake County Public Schools) is resolved.”

Bryan said right now, the school system has adequate money put away that could supplement teacher pay, although many opponents to that plan argue it isn’t a sustainable option.

“I think anybody would recognize (that money) would need to be allocated and spent before going and asking the public for additional money,” he said.

The referendum the mayors and Sullivan, a Democrat, are working on would be on the ballot at the same time that four Republicans, including Bryan, will be up for election. A loss for any of the four would mean Republicans would lose a majority on the Board.

The Houston school system hosted a job fair recently in Wake County, touting higher pay. If counties like Guilford and Mecklenburg pass their referendums, it would be incredibly easy for teachers in Wake to make a decision to leave, Killen said.

“That’s really how it came to us,” he said. “It’s a competitive issue in North Carolina.”

But Sullivan is quick to note that the county’s effort won’t fix the problem.

“In a county, we can’t do anything about somebody leaving (to teach in) Virginia to make $10,000 more a year,” she said. “The state does have a responsibility to do that.”

Though Sullivan said Wake County has a responsibility to do what it can to recruit teachers, which translates into competitive pay, Bryan is less willing to take on a job he said belongs to higher levels of government.

“This is a statewide issue that needs to be solved at a state level,” he said. “The local government can’t continue to backfill what the state and federal government won’t do.”

If the state does not approve a budget by the time Wake commissioners hold their July 7 meeting, the discussion will be moved to the July 21 meeting.

Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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