Letter from McCrory stirs pot over teacher raises

Posted September 8, 2014
Updated September 9, 2014

— When Gov. Pat McCrory wrote to welcome teachers back to the classroom, he touted a "substantial" pay raise that amounted to "an average pay increase of 5.5 percent for teachers."

That might have been exciting news, except that legislative leaders have been touting a 7 percent average pay raise for more than a month. House Speaker Thom Tillis trumpets that 7 percent figure as "simple math" in a recent campaign ad for his U.S. Senate campaign.

For educators like Michelle Pettey, a first-grade teacher at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, that "simple math" doesn't add up; 5.5 percent doesn't equal 7 percent, and neither number matches the smaller-than-expected bump that showed up in her first paycheck of the year.

"No teacher can figure out what happened," said Pettey, a teacher with 16 years in the classroom who said her actual raise worked out to be something like 1.39 percent over last year's salary.

The single mother whose own children are in the school system says she has friends outside the profession who ask her why teachers are complaining about a 7 percent raise.

"I tell them, 'That's what they want you to think, but that's only an average. It's different for everyone,'" she said Monday afternoon between the end of her day working for the public school and a tutoring job that helps make ends meet. Tillis 7 percent at the whiteboard Teachers have questions about pay after McCrory's letter

The teacher pay raises lawmakers passed this summer have been tinged by politics and obscured by confusion ever since they were rolled out.

Part of that conflict stems from the fact that 7 percent – or 5.5 percent – is an average raise, but the actual amount a teacher received varies depending on how long he or she has been in the profession. Also, whatever the raise, it affects only the state-funded portion of a teacher salary, not any supplemental funding provided by local systems like Wake County.

But the governor, state House members and state senators have seemly contributed to the confusion by putting out different numbers – 5.5 percent versus 7 percent versus an even higher estimate of the average, depending on how it's calculated. All of those numbers oversell the raise for veteran teachers, says Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, a teachers advocacy organization that has disputed the 7 percent number since it was unveiled.

"It's much less of a salary increase than what they've touted," Ellis said.

Even teachers who say they would like to give Republican leaders who control state government the benefit of the doubt point to the conflict between the governor's letter and legislative pronouncements about the pay raise with a measure of skepticism.

Back to School letter image"If I'm being told one thing by one group and another thing by another group, I'm going to scratch my head," concedes Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the No. 2 leader in the state Senate.

Apodaca said that everything he's ever seen on the pay raise tells him its a 7 percent average hike, not the 5.5 percent raise listed by the governor.

"I don't know where the governor is getting his numbers," he said. "It wouldn't be the first time I didn't agree with what was coming out of the Governor's Office, and I'm sure it won't be the last."

Saying the same thing in different ways

In one respect, lawmakers and the governor are trying to say the same thing – that teachers got a substantial raise after years of seeing their pay stagnate. On top of that, a complicated 30-plus step seniority tier was revamped into six bands.

For a teacher entering the fifth or sixth year in the classroom, the 18.5 percent raise reflected in this month's paycheck probably exceeded expectations. Veteran teachers, such as one of Pettey's colleagues who has been in the classroom for something approaching 30 years, were less impressed with a raise that measured only a fraction of 1 percent.

Pettey said that, when she opened her own check and saw the mismatch between reality and expectations, "I sat down and cried."

On top of those individual variations, Pettey said, it doesn't seem that policymakers know exactly what it is they did in this year's budget when they can't even agree on the average amount of the raise.

Josh Ellis, a spokesman for McCrory, said the difference between the 5.5 percent number and the 7 percent number is basically a difference in accounting.

"We're saying the same thing," Ellis said. "There's certainly no attempt to cause confusion."

Through the 2013-14 school year, veteran teachers have gotten longevity pay, a lump sum bonus for sticking with the profession paid on the anniversary of their hire. Even in lean times when teachers weren't getting pay raises, veteran educators continued to get longevity pay.

Backers of this year's pay raise said the new pay scale folds longevity pay into the system, meaning that teachers will see a boost in their paychecks throughout the year rather than in a lump sum. Teachers such as Pettey and advocates such as Ellis talk differently about that arrangement, saying they have essentially "lost" the extra pay, which they see as subsidizing pay boosts for younger teachers.

Either way, the governor's office says the new system gives teachers a 5.5 percent average raise if you don't count longevity. It only hits 7 percent, they said, once you fold longevity in.

Josh Ellis said that McCrory's letter could have been clearer by saying the raise was 5.5 percent on top of longevity, stressing that the governor and Tillis agree on the basic numbers. 

It's worth noting that McCrory promised to veto any budget that contained a pay raise of more than 6 percent, a threat that the 5.5 percent number allows him to back away from.

Like Josh Ellis, Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a senior House budget writer, points to the rationale involving longevity pay to explain the difference.

"It's my understanding they are not including longevity," Dollar said. "The average of 7 percent does include rolling longevity into the calculation."

Both Dollar and the governor's spokesman say lawmakers and the governor want to move forward with more salary enhancements for teachers that would include bonuses for senior teachers like Pettey who agree to mentor younger educators and pay bumps for those who teach in-demand topics like science or in hard-to-staff schools.

Senate staffers, however, insist that this year's raise is 7 percent even without including longevity. They point to a document that seems to show the average teacher pay raise is 7 percent without figuring in longevity and say it would be even more if longevity pay were included.

"That's not accurate," the NCAE's Ellis said, insisting that the governor's 5.5 percent number is closer to the truth. "Those teachers who have been the stable workhorses of the system are the ones who are getting shortchanged."

While they duel over the numbers, lawmakers, governor's staffers and NCAE officials say it's understandable that teachers are confused and have doubts about exactly what they should be expecting in terms of salary this year.

As for Pettey, she said it feels like policymakers are trying to mislead the public and teachers, especially those who have stuck with North Carolina's public system through lean times.

"I don't feel like they value the time that I've given," she said, adding that she's beginning to have doubts about how long she'll stay in the classroom. "I look at my future and think, 'Can I keep doing this much longer?'"


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  • Smilester Sep 12, 2014

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    If they wouldn't have changed the tax rate into a deficit there wouldn't be a deficit to begin with. Keep in mind that NC like most other states had a deficit in large part due to the recession. If they wouldn't have screwed up the tax rate to benefit their corporate masters & big donors we would be working with a surplus.

  • Frances Foster Sep 12, 2014
    user avatar

    Smoke and mirrors again by the Republican party. Another travesty by our General Assembly. Where does the lying stop?

  • thx1138 Sep 12, 2014

    Divide and humiliate ...

    THIS is the GOP plan

  • mbrownunc Sep 12, 2014

    I am a State employee, I get raises and everyone that does my job gets raises based on "market rate". Those at the lower end of the salary spectrum get bigger raises; those at the market cap, don't get a raise, just a small $1000 bonus. I believe the teacher raise structure is similar. There is a market rate, the higher you are above market, the lower the raise. This is a VERY common method of giving raises. I understand teachers haven't had raises since 2008, my wife is a teacher. However you can't expect the state to make up the deficit in 1 year. Baby steps!

  • Smilester Sep 12, 2014

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    Maybe the problem is that they haven't done anything positive lately?

  • Steve Lancaster Sep 11, 2014
    user avatar

    Its so obvious that Wral is bias...I haven`t one positive story about Republicans.

  • tracmister Sep 10, 2014

    Regardless of whether it's 7%, 5.5%, or more like a few that get large raises to make it 5.5%, there are plenty of teaching positions in this state open right now and the numbers continue to climb because yes they are going to other states.

  • miseem Sep 10, 2014

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    You have every right to complain. State employees have always taken the back seat to teachers when it comes to raises. But that does not mean that teachers have no right to expose the chicanery of the NCGA. They had little choice but to increase starting teacher pay. Teachers just out of college, or a few years out, are less likely to have roots in NC and more likely to move out of state for higher pay. In addition, it takes a lot less money to give a percentage pay raise to someone at the bottom of the pay grade. The problem is that more experienced teachers got little if any pay raise. Think any teacher with 30 years in is going to stay? Someone with 15 years in, seeing $25 more in their paycheck, is not going to start looking for another occupation, expecting this to be a continuing problem? This was a reaction to something the GOP did not want to see occur - starting teacher flight - and decided to work it into an election year PR spin

  • FVHowler Sep 10, 2014

    I've been a government employee most of my life and have never seen a raise of 5.5% raise. Its just never in the budget for that amount of raise. What is exactly are teachers complaining now?

  • Jeff Snavely Sep 10, 2014
    user avatar

    Start with the following assumptions:

    - every word out of Tillis's mouth is a lie
    - Pat is either reading a script or making it up.

    Either way, we know 7% is wrong.

    The key point to remember is that the confusion is intentional. This legislature has a history of intentional vagueness... of moving money between line items so they can make half-hearted claims without being called out as outright liars.

    And the media plays right along with it. The intentional obfuscation of the facts should be enough to call them out as incompetents.

    Instead, the media seems intent on playing along. The people of this state should be demanding transparency and the media should be supporting them in this.

    Unfortunately, neither are up to the task.