As state budget negotiations stall, understaffed schools await funding
State lawmakers are supposed to pass a budget by July, when the next budget cycle takes effect for state agencies and schools. But debates between Republican leaders are dragging well into the fall and the delays are affecting school budgets as the school year ramps up.
“Any educator could tell you if we didn't meet any of our school deadlines, there would be enormous consequences for our school districts,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
“While our lawmakers are debating amongst themselves, there are real impacts that a budget delay has on our school districts,” she added.
Some educators have had to cancel field trips or delay buying supplies or equipment because their school’s budget is uncertain, said Walker Kelly. Teachers are waiting for raises proposed in lawmakers’ draft budgets, as well as annual step increases they are entitled to based on their experience and past state budgets. Those raises will be paid out once the new budget passes.
“The common response that we've heard from leaders in Raleigh is that ‘Yes, you will get your money and it will be retroactively paid to you,’” Walker Kelly said. “But it's then administered differently, and it's also taxed differently.”
When teachers and state employees receive a raise retroactively, they receive it in a lump sum like a bonus, which can push them into a higher tax bracket, the State Employees Association of North Carolina confirmed.
The state budget delay also makes it harder for schools to hire new employees because they can't guarantee applicants' salaries. Meanwhile, schools across the state continue to deal with understaffing, after a rise in teacher and staff turnover during the pandemic.
“We continue to worry that when students are walking into school buildings that they're entering classrooms without an educator present to lead instruction,” Walker Kelly said.
The North Carolina School Superintendents Association recently surveyed public schools about the vacancies they had on their first day of class.
School districts reported back 9,809 vacancies for school employees, with 88% of districts reporting. The number of vacancies dropped from the prior year, but “it’s still very high” said Jack Hoke, the association's executive director.
The year-to-year results are not an apples-to-apples comparison because not all the same districts reported each year, Hoke said. But all the largest school districts in the state reported this year and last, so the survey results show the general statewide picture.
“What the data says to me is that we have got to elevate the teaching profession, and that includes salary, benefits and treating them as professionals,” Hoke said. “And in order to address this, it's a long term solution.”
The data also showed thousands more teachers in classrooms who are not fully licensed—more than double from two years ago. This trend is related to enrollment decline at teaching colleges, Hoke said.
Schools are hiring more teachers on a “residency license” where the candidate does not have a degree, or necessarily any training or experience in education. Residency license teachers learn on the job and have to complete college courses in education to remain teaching long term.
“Not only is this person learning how to be a teacher, but they are totally new to the education world,” Walker Kelly said. “Our students are starting at a slight disadvantage not having a full certified educator in the classroom and so that will impact their educational experience throughout the year.”