Charlotte Observer, 8/5/14

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have to cut about 90 teaching assistant positions based on the state budget passed by the N.C. legislature, Superintendent Heath Morrison said Tuesday.

As the school district parsed through the numerous changes to education funding outlined in the the proposal, officials found that CMS faces a funding gap of $2.6 million for teacher assistants. But because the school district has nearly 150 vacancies, no layoffs would be needed. CMS currently has 1,586 teacher assistants.

The budget avoids massive losses of teacher assistants feared under earlier versions of the state budget, which still awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature. But it comes despite assurances from leaders in the legislature that no assistant positions would be lost under the final deal.

“We did ask for teacher salaries to be a high priority in this budget, and to not have to make substantive cuts to K-12 education to fund those teacher salaries,” Morrison said during a news conference at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

The budget includes an average base salary increase of 7 percent for teachers. In CMS, most teaching positions are funded by the state, while Mecklenburg County picks up the rest.

County officials are still determining how much money they will need to provide raises for teachers whose positions they fund. Budget director Michael Bryant said the county is still running the numbers and could not comment.

County commissioners have already set aside $7.3 million to cover 2 percent raises for teacher positions Mecklenburg funds. Commissioners have said they are committed to matching raises approved by the state legislature, however. County leaders said Tuesday it is unclear exactly how much money that would require or where it would come from.

Complex changes

As Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis unveiled their budget deal last week, both sides touted an increase to teacher pay without sacrificing teacher assistant positions. But CMS leaders said Tuesday the gap stems from the way the state pays school districts for teachers and teacher assistants.

A series of complex changes to education funding in the budget cut millions for teacher assistants, but added an equal amount of money for new teaching positions. Districts have the ability to use the money for either new teachers or assistant positions. Because the salaries for the two positions don’t match up, several districts are reporting funding gaps.

Forsyth County Schools leaders announced a $4 million cut in teacher assistant funding Tuesday, or about 125 positions, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. Pitt County Schools reported losing 14 positions, news station WNCT reported.

Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said the budget preserve funding for teacher assistants. She said the change was made because school districts have used money specified for teacher assistants in the past for teacher positions, and the budget proposal is closer to reality.

“Local school districts still have full flexibility to devote these funds to teacher assistants if they choose, but this change is a more accurate way to account for how the dollars are currently being spent,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign accused the legislature of misleading taxpayers on teacher assistant cuts. Tillis, a Republican, is running against Hagan for her seat.

Teacher complaints

The budget proposal has sparked broad criticism from veteran teachers, who get much smaller raises than younger counterparts. While legislature leaders said the budget includes an average 7 percent raise for teachers, the actual increase can range from 18 percent for teachers with five or six years experience, and 0.3 percent raises for teachers with about 30 years experience.

Morrison said he has heard from many teachers and understands their concerns.

“You’re going to think either this was the greatest budget ever or you’re going to think that it disrespected you,” Morrison said.

But he said the loss of longevity pay is a bigger concern. In the past, teachers had received a lump sum percentage of their base salary each year, which increased with the years of service. The budget proposal eliminates that system and instead works longevity pay levels into base salary.

“I put a high priority on our veteran teachers,” Morrison said. “Experience matters.”

But he also said that some of a person’s best teaching comes between years five and 15.

“We need to have a great base for all of our teachers,” he said. “We need an entry salary that entices teachers to come to North Carolina and stay in North Carolina. I think a significant step has been made.”