RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As school districts in North Carolina struggle to hire thousands of teachers and other professionals just days before many kids return to class, Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday that pay and the political environment are driving people away. 

“We’ve got a crisis of resources and it’s not because we don’t have the money,” Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham County) said. “So, what we’ve got to do is stop demonizing public education.” 

The latest data from the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association shows that school districts across the state have 3,618 vacant teacher positions, which is up from 1,942 last year. 

Additionally, the association said those districts have more than 7,000 other open positions, such as bus drivers, counselors and administrators. The data is based on reports from 98 of the state’s 115 school districts.  

“The number of vacancies is certainly trending up based on the data for 2021 and 2022,” Jake Hoke said, the executive director of the NCSSA. “The teacher pipeline is shrinking yearly and as a state we need to figure out how to increase the number of students enrolling in teacher education programs in colleges and universities.”

Hoke also noted that 17 districts have 51 or more teacher vacancies, 21 districts have between 21-50 vacancies, 23 districts have 11-20 vacancies, 29 districts have two to 10 vacancies and eight districts have either zero or one vacancy.  

Christina Spears, the president of Wake County’s chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said while pay has been a longstanding issue, she thinks other factors are contributing to the challenges this year in particular.  

“I think the biggest challenge is the climate around public education, particularly at the state level,” she said. “Folks aren’t choosing to come into the profession and stay in the profession, so I think that’s the biggest challenge right now.” 

During a press conference Thursday, Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) pointed to efforts to ban books in schools as well as Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson suggesting in his new book that elementary schools not teach science and social studies while prioritizing reading, writing and math. 

“Should we make (teachers) the enemy of the public and sic angered parents at them based on misinformation?” Sen. Blue asked. 

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said the challenges with hiring are not limited to education. 

“I share the same concerns as everyone about the teacher shortage right now, but you know it’s a national issue,” Moore said. “I actually know a few close friends who have been in teaching for years who are looking for different careers, some based on salary, some based on other opportunities, some based on burnout.” 

He said he supports local school districts using federal COVID relief money to increase pay, saying that money is “just sitting there.” 

Democrats criticized Republicans for leaving billions of dollars at the state level in reserves in the budget the General Assembly passed in July. 

“I would anticipate next year when we come back in with the budget we’re going to look at even more pay raises,” Moore said.  

Principals also recently raised concerns about a change state lawmakers made to how their pay is calculated based on student test scores that could lead to 15 percent of them seeing pay cuts.  

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (R) said those potential cuts range from $7,200 to $18,000 over one year. 

Speaker Moore said he had not heard about that issue until Thursday but said it needs to be fixed.

Additionally, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger questioned whether the numbers the principals cited were accurate. 

Regardless, Superintendent Truitt proposed to use federal COVID-19 funds to ensure that the principals negatively impacted by the change don’t see their pay reduced. 

Berger and Moore said they support her plan.  

The state Supreme Court is also scheduled to hear oral arguments next week in the Leandro school funding case after a trial court ordered the state to use about $1.7 billion to fund a plan aimed at improving education. The General Assembly has not fulfilled the court’s order, as Republicans argue it’s unconstitutional.