Grass a good bit greener across state line?

School advocates say Mecklenburg County is facing an exodus, one that could hit Ballantyne hard.

(Above) Drivers cross into South Carolina along Lancaster Highway on Thursday, May 15. Some school advocates say more Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers are looking at S.C. schools to make more money than at CMS.

(Above) Drivers cross into South Carolina along Lancaster Highway on Thursday, May 15. Some school advocates say more Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers are looking at S.C. schools to make more money than at CMS.

While leaders with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wait to see what help they will receive from Gov. Pat McCrory and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in raising the average teacher salary, public school educators may have run out of patience waiting for their raises. And, just like many in the area who have already turned to South Carolina for cheaper gas and lower property taxes, more and more teachers may soon cross the border – assuming they don’t already live there – for an annual pay increase that could be as much as $5,000 to $7,000.

Don’t tell that to Troy Moore. The Hawk Ridge Elementary School principal has already heard all about it from a handful of teachers who have told him they’re looking for jobs in South Carolina. And as someone who cares about the good of his staff and their families, Moore said he isn’t angry at them for looking to leave.

“I’ve had a couple (of teachers) come to me and say, ‘Hey, Troy. Just wanted you to know I am looking at opportunities in South Carolina like Fort Mill and Indian Land and York County. Not that I’m not happy here, I love it here at Hawk Ridge, but I’m looking at opportunities for pay increases and I’ve found it to be significant. … I hope you would support me in that with references,’” Moore said of what’s threatening to become a trend in Ballantyne schools. “I tell them, ‘You’ve been outstanding for me, we couldn’t do what we do without the great teachers here. And if that’s what you need me to do to support you and your families, I will most certainly do that.’”

While Moore supports his staff, he doesn’t have to stand idly by and watch them leave. After his third straight conversation earlier this year with a teacher looking to move schools for a higher salary, Moore emailed his boss to let him know that “pay is really becoming an issue” for teachers.

That boss, CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison, has been advocating for a 3 percent staff pay increase in this year’s budget. It’s a process that so far is slow going.

“We are trying to gather the final date in terms of exactly how many staff members we are losing” due to salary, Morrison said in late April of numbers that now suggested 251 teachers left for pay reasons in 2013-14. “We are seeing a significant rise in the last five years of talented educators leaving our state due to salary. … A number of our principals have talked about the fact that it’s really hard and they’re having to work 24/7 to convince them to stay.”

Teachers leaving each year isn’t a rare occurrence. Hawk Ridge is accustomed to bringing in one or two new educators each year, Moore said. But… “eight to 10 teachers would be a little more difficult…”

While school leaders can agree salary is the main problem in the teacher exodus, they can’t agree on exactly where to expect relief to come from. More than half of the CMS budget comes from state funds, some 30 percent from the county commission and the rest through federal dollars and other avenues. But that 30 percent is a dominant piece of the county’s entire budget, and some at the county level have said increasing teacher salaries is a duty that falls on the state. Paying for teacher raises out of the county budget could require cuts elsewhere or a rare election year tax increase. Those are things SouthPark-area Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he’s not ready to even consider until the school district gives him more information. He will have a conversation about teacher pay raises, but only once he knows exactly how much that would cost. The $27 million CMS is asking for in extra funds this year for raises would go toward a 3 percent raise for all CMS employees, Ridenhour said. A different number, $18.5 million, would be what it takes to give all employees on a teacher pay scale, including counselors and other such positions, a 3 percent raise. Ridenhour is awaiting how much it would cost to only give teachers a raise, though was recently told that number is not available.

“Should we be asked to provide an increase for classroom teachers only, we would have to create a unique salary schedule just for classroom teachers in Mecklenburg County,” Earnest Winston, CMS chief of staff, said in an email to Ridenhour. “We strongly discourage going down this path. … We have not computed the amount required for an increase for classroom teachers only and ask for your support in not taking us in that direction.”

Regardless if the county could provide a raise only to teachers, Ridenhour rather see the funds come from somewhere else.

“Ideally, I would like to see the state step up to the plate … and say ‘We are raising teacher salaries across the state by 2 percent,’” Ridenhour said. “Then we in Mecklenburg County can increase our supplement so teachers can get an additional 1 to 1.5 percent.

“That we can fund on the local level… we can come up with $6 million to $7 million. But asking us to come up with $27 million for everyone in CMS to get a raise is impossible. No. 1, we don’t have that much excess revenue. And No. 2, it’s not sustainable.”

The county currently has a little more than $30 million in excess revenue, Ridenhour said. If it was to give CMS all $30 million, funding would still fall short of the district’s proposed $46 million increase. And raising taxes 1.25 cents would create about $11.5 million in new revenue, Ridenhour threw out as an example, which would still require cuts somewhere to hit the CMS number.

So funding the pay increases, as they are currently proposed, may not come at the county level this year, Ridenhour said.

Education advocates have expressed cautious optimism about Gov. McCrory’s plan, which seeks to increase the base pay for North Carolina teachers to $35,000 a year. The average CMS starting pay is slightly more than that, at $35,417, for first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree.

The governor’s plan would allow teachers to earn more money in the first few years of their career instead of later and allow them to earn raises for gaining certain leadership roles, teaching “high-need” subjects, teaching in “high-need” schools and more, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, who represents much of south Mecklenburg, said Monday, May 12, that the legislature was still looking over McCrory’s plan and seeing what funds will be available to support it. Rucho said extra money in this year’s budget likely will be canceled out by increased Medicaid costs, though the recently started short session of the legislature will discuss the matter in more detail.

“Education is part of our strategic plan as far as making a competitive economy, as far as making sure the children that are in school now are prepared to meet the requirements for the 21st century jobs they are going to be facing,” Rucho said, while adding that funding pay increases on the state level may be difficult this year. “… The governor’s goals (of increasing teacher pay) are noble, and we all have them.”

Regardless of the timeline, some at CMS have high hopes that steps proposed in Raleigh will have a big impact in Charlotte. McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, is familiar with CMS and the problems the large school district faces.

“What the governor has put out there is a really good start,” said CMS Board of Education at-large member and south Mecklenburg resident Tim Morgan. “… I think at least it’s on his radar now. It appears to be on the radar of folks on the General Assembly and legislature.”

So the state could help with raises soon, and the county commission could help with raises as soon as this summer. But meanwhile, school system leaders are frustrated. They are telling teachers that they are working to get raises, but their only tool to make that happen – other than making other cuts in the school budget like closing schools – is to ask the county or state for more money with no control over if that actually comes to fruition.

“The problem is the state says, ‘Well, the county ought to do more.’ The county says, ‘Really it’s a state responsibility,’” SouthPark-area school board representative Eric Davis said. “The school system has no authority.”

Moore, the Hawk Ridge principal, hopes county commissioners use the authority they have to send a message to the rest of the state about what teachers mean to Charlotte’s future.

“We’re coming up against a (budget) vote where commissioners could really put CMS on the map and say, ‘We’re not standing for this any longer,’” Moore said. “If we need to be the frontrunners in North Carolina and say our teachers need to be valued and show this is the elite profession in our community, that’s what they need to do.”

That’s not to say Mecklenburg County is the only district suffering from teacher loss, Morrison said. It’s a state-wide problem. At this point, school advocates have the North Carolina teacher pay talking points memorized by heart:

“Roughly 40 percent of all (N.C.) counties border a surrounding state that pays higher,” Morgan said. “So it’s not just a south Charlotte issue, this is a North Carolina challenge.”

“As a state, we have fallen faster than any other state in the last 10 years,” Morrison said.

“North Carolina was one of three states – with West Virginia and South Dakota – that didn’t provide any raises for educators,” Morgan said. “We have to get off that list.”

“We’re $7,000 below the regional average,” Morrison said. “Even if we get the 3 percent, we will still be below Rock Hill.”

Most school systems don’t have the ability to control their funding in North Carolina. That’s because, despite a few exceptions, districts in the state don’t have taxing authority. Some education advocates feel it’s time for that to change. While the county provides such a large part of the CMS budget, they have no management control over the body. That falls on the elected school board members, who could be granted the power by the general assembly to levy a tax for schools. That school funding chunk would then drop out of the county commission’s budget and tax rate, theoretically.

The nearby Mooresville Graded School District’s Board of Education is one of only two in the state with the power to set its own supplemental tax rate, according to Terry Haas, the system’s chief financial officer. The Mooresville supplemental tax rate set by the board of education is 18.5 cents per $100, Haas said. The school board is asking for $9 million from Iredell County this budget season and expects $4.6 million in the local supplemental tax, according to the proposed budget. That supplemental tax is used by the district to fund local expenditures, one of which is supplementing teacher salaries, Haas said. The board can change the tax rate when needed to make up in other revenue losses.

Giving CMS a similar power is a proposal that Ridenhour, the county commissioner, agrees with. He hasn’t taken the full pulse of his other commissioners on the matter, but said taking the county out of the CMS funding game would be something he fully supports.

“Yes, give CMS taxing authority,” he said. “Let them be responsible to the taxpayers for their own expenses. … But if we’re going to do that, the county commission needs to get out of the education business all together,” meaning the county would no longer be responsible for any funding toward education advocacy programs. Those programs can “go to CMS and ask them for money” to where the county would have no obligation at all to fund CMS.

Some school board members say they’re ready for the responsibility, and if they do a bad job, the voters will take care of it – just like they do during county commission and general assembly elections.

“As a taxpayer, I believe you need to be able to hold a body accountable for the performance,” Morgan said. “Right now with the structure that we have, you have a county that funds schools, you have a school board responsible for managing it. You can have a lot of finger pointing going on. I rather have one body be responsible to the citizens of Mecklenburg County.”

“It’s much clearer for the board of education to be responsible for funding and performance and then the public can hold those nine elected officials responsible,” Davis added.

But that authority has to come from the state, and at least one state leader doesn’t see that step coming any time soon.

“Our feeling is that would likely not happen,” Rucho said of the legislature granting taxing authority, saying commissioners in Mecklenburg County can “go ahead and increase the county … level of reimbursement and therefore county property taxes” if people in the Charlotte area want to see teacher pay increases this year.

Ridenhour points out that teachers are state employees, and “the base salary across North Carolina is bad. … (the state) is dragging its feet. You are underpaying your state employees and expecting the local governments to pick up the slack.”

School leaders say they’re tired of the back and forth between the county and state over who should charge taxpayers for funding schools if the state won’t let CMS take that responsibility. They just want resolution before more teachers flee south. That could especially be a problem for Ballantyne-area schools, which have many teachers who already live near, or across, the border. Not having to find a new home is an added bonus to go with a $5,000 pay increase.

“These teachers, they are phenomenal,” Morrison said. “They don’t want to leave, they love their schools and love working in (CMS) and love their students. (But South Carolina) is just a little further down the road.”

Moore hears that loud and clear.

“When you look at my school, my school is five minutes from the line,” Moore, who lives in South Carolina, said. “It is a lure for all the educators that are here to be able to go across the line and do the great things they are doing here, and live in the same home they are living in now, and be able to provide a little differently for their families.”

The teacher pay issue may be having a negative effect on prospective teachers, as well, Morgan said. He points to lower enrollment numbers at university education programs in North Carolina, calling losing significant numbers of possible teachers a “recipe for disaster.”

The College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has seen a drop in freshman enrollees of roughly 40 percent, the college’s dean, Ellen McIntyre, said in a recent interview with WCCB News Rising emailed to South Charlotte Weekly in response to questions about enrollment. In the interview, McIntyre said the drop in enrollment is at 20 percent when including graduate students – something she said low pay in North Carolina is partly to blame for. Another concern, she said, is there aren’t many options for advancement in schools other than joining administration, which many teachers aren’t interested in. See the full interview at www.wccbcharlotte.com/rising/guests/UNCC-Dean-Talks-Local-Universities-and-Teacher-Diversity-Gap-258272351.html.

While the starting pay is one problem, bonuses are another, Morgan said. For example, Garinger High School’s James Ford was recently named North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is a candidate for National Teacher of the Year.

“And the best I can offer (Ford) is the hope that he’s in the Top 25 percent of the teachers at his school … and be able to offer him $500 a year for the next four years” as a bonus for his efforts, Morgan said regarding a new state program CMS leaders have voiced displeasure over. “That’s the best I can offer him to be a teacher in North Carolina, when he can walk across the state line and make more money. … We know there are other districts out there looking at our teachers and who can offer them more
money.”

Teaching has long been considered a job you do out of passion, not to pad (or maybe even have) a savings account, some have said during the pay raise debate. But Davis says there’s a difference between what CMS leaders are calling for and buying a third car.

“We’re not talking about being wealthy,” he said. “We’re talking about the ability to have a decent salary so you don’t have to work two jobs, so you don’t have to worry about if you are going to have enough money to send your child to college or pay the mortgage. We sure do, as a state and a county, put up plenty of reasons for (teachers) to leave.

“They don’t get into it to be wealthy, but they don’t get into it to be poor.”

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