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What’s in the state budget for teacher and school employee pay?

two educators wearing red holding signs
Rusty Jacobs
In this May 1, 2019 file photo, Cabarrus County middle school teachers Paul Ruemmler and Lisa Rodriguez join educators in a demonstration in Raleigh.

Educators will see more money in their paychecks this year from a combination of raises, bonuses and a new county-based supplement for teacher pay.

The state budget Governor Roy Cooper signed into law Thursday spends hundreds of millions of dollars to increase educator pay and compensation over the next two years. Increases in school employee compensation make up a large part of new public school funding in the biennial budget.

"We're very relieved we have a budget," said Freebird McKinney, director of legislative affairs at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, earlier this week as the budget moved through bipartisan votes.

"The bonus structure with some of the raises that we're seeing, it's a huge step forward to where we've been," said McKinney, who is also a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Still, some teachers have been disappointed that the raise in their base pay this year amounts to about $50 to $65 a month.

How much an individual teacher, bus driver or cafeteria worker will see in their paycheck compared to last year comes down to a lot more than that bump in the base salary, but bonuses will be temporary.

Why educator pay matters

In a state with a large rural population like North Carolina, public schools are one of the largest employers in many counties.

This year, many school districts are struggling to recruit and retain teachers. A WUNC analysis found that school districts across the state were collectively advertising more than 10,000 vacancies on online job boards in the first week of November.

Staffing shortages and the stress of teaching during a pandemic have many educators feeling overworked and burnt out. School leaders are feeling the pressure to reward employees for their dedication and to retain them.

Raises for teachers and school support staff

Republican leaders in the General Assembly are publicizing teacher pay raises of an average of 5% over the next two years. That figure includes annual step increases on the teacher salary schedule most teachers routinely receive for each additional year of service.

Here’s how the 2.5% annual raise breaks down:

  • All teachers will get a 1.3% bump in their base salary this year and again the following school year.
  • Teachers with 15 years or less of service will receive their annual step increases each year. The step increase represents about a 1.2% raise from the previous year.

Since passage of the budget was delayed, teachers did not receive their step raises for several months this fall. This year's raises are retroactive to July 1, and teachers will likely receive the raise and back pay in January according to legislative staff.

The raise in the base salary amounts to about $50 to $65 more per month in each teacher’s pockets compared to what they would have received on the old salary schedule. That doesn’t do enough to keep up with the rising cost of utilities, gas and groceries this year, said President of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) Tamika Walker Kelly.

“Inflation is something that hits all of us,” said Walker Kelly. “Our educators still need meaningful raises to keep up with what we’ve asked them to do.”

Support staff including bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers will see their minimum wage rise to $13 an hour this school year then to $15 an hour next fall.

Additional pay for master’s degrees scrapped, no annual raises for veteran teachers

Some teachers have been disappointed that a proposal in the House’s version of the budget to reinstate additional pay for teachers who earn a master’s degree did not make it into the final budget. Nor will veteran teachers with 16-24 years of service receive any step increase.

Republican lawmakers dramatically rewrote the salary schedule for teachers in 2014, eliminating additional pay for teachers with advanced degrees and annual step increases for teachers from years 16-24. NCAE has advocated for years to bring back those benefits.

The National Council on Teacher Quality released a 2018 report that found 88% of large school districts across the country offer additional pay to teachers with advanced degrees. The report notes that studies have shown advanced degrees do not correlate with measures of teacher effectiveness.

Republican lawmakers argue the salary schedules of the past seven years benefit younger teachers and allow them to reach a salary of $50,000 in less time. The elimination of master’s pay saves the state money. That benefit is now only extended to teachers who earned their degrees before the schedule was eliminated.

This year only, teachers can receive up to $2,800 in bonuses

Here are the bonuses teachers and school staff are eligible for:

  • $1,500 bonus for state employees with salaries below $75,000. Most teachers and staff will be eligible for that bonus. Any school employees with salaries above $75,000 will receive a $1,000 bonus.
  • $1,000 to teachers and instructional support personnel who have participated in one or more trainings between March 2020 and January 1, 2022 that cover COVID-19 mitigation strategies, virtual instruction or learning loss.
  • $300 to all teachers. This bonus is paid for with unspent funds usually dedicated to teacher bonuses for improving students’ reading scores. 

McKinney said the Department of Public Instruction is working to understand the eligibility for the $1,000 bonuses to help schools ensure their employees will qualify.
Some school boards have also approved other bonuses this school year using their local share of federal COVID relief money.

Some teachers will see raises from new supplement for “low wealth” counties

The biggest factor that creates variation in teacher pay across North Carolina counties is the local supplement county taxpayers contribute on top of a teacher’s base state pay.

The range in local supplements in 2021 varied widely from $0 in five districts to more than $8,873 in Wake County schools.

County commissioners play a role in determining these local supplements, but they are constrained by their county’s capacity to generate tax revenue. The difference in local pay gives large, wealthy counties considerable recruiting power and helps them account for the higher cost of living in urban areas.

In an attempt to level the playing field, the new state budget commits $100 million in recurring funds to a new “low wealth” supplement that will be divided among schools in all but five counties. Local school boards will have the discretion to decide who receives the bonus from their share of the funds, with an annual cap of $4,250 per teacher.

The new supplement combined with existing local supplements would narrow the range of salaries teachers receive across the state.

In 2020, only 30 school districts offered teachers an average of $4,000 or more above their base pay. With the new supplement, 80 school districts could offer at least $4,000 above base pay.

The formula to determine how much each school district will receive is based on:

  • 65% taxable real property
  • 25% median household income
  • 10% effective tax rate

Some Democratic representatives say they voted against the state budget because five of the largest Democratic-leaning counties in the state are excluded from receiving this supplement: Wake, Mecklenburg, Buncombe, Durham and Guilford.
School districts in four of those five counties already had among the five largest local teacher pay supplements.

Other school districts with high local supplements would still receive additional state funding under this formula. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools would jump from having the third-highest teacher pay to the highest teacher pay in the state.

A spokeswoman at Senator Phil Berger’s office, a Rockingham County Republican, confirmed the new supplement would apply to city school districts based on the county in which they’re located, and she provided this table of the supplements each county will receive.

Several relatively large, wealthy counties like Johnston, Forsyth, Chatham and Alamance would also receive this benefit. Guilford County is excluded, while it currently has the 12th highest local pay in the state, behind those four.

The variation in which counties receive the benefit has raised questions about the political nature of the formula that was chosen. The formula disadvantages counties with large populations.

The Department of Public Instruction has another formula to calculate which school districts receive a low wealth allotment as part of their overall state funding. That formula takes into account a county’s tax base as well as its population.

Republican lawmakers instead chose to use a different formula to determine which counties should qualify for a “low wealth” benefit, and the result is that it benefits all but five of the most populous and most Democratic counties in the state.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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