Education advocates call for more spending on NC schools

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Education advocates called for greater state spending on schools Friday as Republican legislative leaders begin negotiating a budget to send to Gov. Roy Cooper (D).

The House of Representatives voted Thursday 72-41 in favor of its proposed spending plan for the next two years, calling for raises and one-time bonuses for teachers and other state employees.

Next week, members of the House and Senate will work on reconciling the differences in each chamber’s version of the state budget to try to come up with a single spending plan for Cooper to consider.

“When we think about average raises, they would be adequate if they’d been funding education the whole way through,” said Kristin Beller, president of Wake County’s chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “They need to make a huge effort. They need to invest the funds that they have.”

Noting teacher vacancy rates, particularly in rural school districts, Beller referred to a court’s recent decision in the long-running Leandro case to approve an eight-year $5.6 billion spending plan aimed at ensuring North Carolina meets its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education.”

Some Democrats who voted against the House budget plan this week noted it does not meet that target.

Republican leaders pointed to the bonuses and pay raises they included in their budget, including an average of 5.5 percent for K-12 teachers over two years, as well as capital investments.

“There have been staffing issues for decades. This is the single greatest stride in one budget to try to take care of a lot of backlogs,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). “It’s one of the most generous pay increases for teachers, state employees, university faculty, community college faculty, that I can recall.”

The debate over the state spending plan comes as many school districts across North Carolina are struggling to fill positions. Some of them are offering sign-on bonuses to try to recruit people.

Guilford County made news last month offering $20,000 sign-on bonuses for teachers willing to work in low-performing schools, as the district tried to fill 120 vacancies for the upcoming year.

Phillip Gillis, vice chair of the Person County Board of Education, said his smaller rural district can’t compete with that.

“Other counties are doing larger bonuses now. And, as I said, the money is not there. We’re doing what we can,” said Gillis. “Everybody’s going to job fairs, trying to recruit teachers and it’s hard.”

A report from the state Department of Public Instruction for the 2019-2020 school year showed Person County had the highest teacher vacancy rate, at 13.1 percent. The counties with the top five vacancy rates were all rural. For the state as a whole, the vacancy rate was 1.7 percent.

Last month, Durham Public Schools reported the district had more than 300 open positions and was offering sign-on bonuses as high as $8,000 for the hardest-to-fill positions.

“They’re not putting enough money into the budget for public education. That’s the bottom line,” said Liz Beck, a parent from Johnston County.

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