Wake County Schools

Wake Board of Education approves $38.9M in raises for employees, calling for more funding next year

Posted December 6, 2021 2:40 p.m. EST
Updated December 8, 2021 6:50 a.m. EST

— The Wake County Public School System employees will provide wage and salary increases for “all employees,” including substitute teachers, to the tune of $38.9 million this year.

Wage increases could be 40% or more for the lowest-paid workers, mostly instructional assistants. It would be less for most employees.

The Wake County Board of Education will approve the pay increases without opposition at its regular board meeting Tuesday.

The district is using leftover funding to pay for the raises.

Continuing to fund the new pay approved Tuesday will require either an additional appropriation of funds from the county next year or for the district to take money form an existing program or expenditure next year.

Board members heard Tuesday afternoon that the district has a fund balance of 2.7%, or about seven days of operations. Ideal fund balances are higher than that, closer to 8%.

The proposal is the biggest move so far toward a years-long effort by the school board — put on pause at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to increase pay for the district’s lowest-wage workers.

“When bonuses and base pay combined in January most employees will receive likely the largest paycheck of their WCPSS career,” Superintendent Cathy Moore told the school board.

Employees across experience levels have been pressing the school board and the state for months and even years for raises after years of stagnant wages and frozen step increases.

Cafeteria workers and bus drivers have each staged "sick outs" this fall to protest working conditions strained by staffing shortages – in part because of low pay – and, in the case of cafeteria workers, supply shortages.

Jessica Armstrong, a district elementary school teacher, blamed low pay for high vacancy rates. That further compounds the stress of the job and worsens education quality, Armstrong said.

What happens to children’s education, Armstrong asked, when instructional assistants have to cover empty classrooms, administrators have to supervise lunch, or English language learner teachers wait for late buses to arrive?

“Unless you act, our students will continue to suffer,” Armstrong said.

On Tuesday evening, school employees rallied outside of the board meeting in favor of higher pay.

At the board meeting later, several asked the board to increase wages to $17 per hour for all wage workers, provide a 6% raise for all salaried educators and provide extra pay for employees taking on extra responsibilities during high staff shortages.

The compensation increases approved Tuesday don’t meet all of those requirements.

The state by law funds education, and counties fund education facilities. Counties often use their own tax dollars to fund more positions and pay on top of what the state provides. School districts don’t have taxing authority, but counties, which set school district budgets, do.

Pay increases vary by job

The pay increases, effective retroactively to July 1, are:

  • 2.5% increase to local supplement for principals
  • 1.5% increase to local supplement for certified staff and teachers
  • 1.5% increase to speech language pathologist supplement
  • 0.5% increase on occupational therapy and physical therapy pay scale steps starting at 10 years of experience
  • 1.5% increase in local supplement for assistant principals
  • 0.5% increase for non-certified support staff

The pay increases, effective January 2022, are:

  • $15/hour minimum rate using local funds
  • Step compression fix: $0.25 more compared to current schedule and another $0.40 difference step-to-step
  • Moving general education instruction assistants and bus drives to Grade 20
  • Moving special ed instructional assistants and driver team leads to Grade 21
  • 2% increase for non-certified staff
  • New substitute teacher daily rate of $115

On Nov. 16, The Wake County Board of Education approved raising substitute teacher pay from $80 per day to $104 per day for non-certified teacher substitutes and from $103 per day to $130 per day for certified teacher substitutes.

Instructional assistants are currently “Grade 18,” which started out at $11.80 per hour this year. Last month, the board approved an increase ins tarting pay to $13 per hour.

Under the new schedule, Grade 20, starting pay will be $16.20 per hour and Grade 21, will be $16.60 per hour.

The new schedule also shows a pay difference at every level of experience. Whether that continues permanently, Chief Business Officer David Neter said, is a matter of whether the state and school board decide to fund the step increases for existing employees as they gain experience levels. That has not always happened in the past, including recently, until the new budget was passed last month.

Looking at more pay increases

Turnover and high vacancy rates will improve when schools can create the environment that attracts people to work in education, Board Member Jim Martin said. That includes setting pay at attractive levels, he said.

Recently, district officials, before the new budget passed, said they can only provide so much more compensation without the help of lawmakers.

“We realize the pay issues that are at the feet of the North Carolina General Assembly,” Suzanne Miller, of Pastors for North Carolina Children, told the board. “It’s their fault we’re in this mess, their lack of action.”

But the board must act now, Miller said, to ensure people are fairly compensated for the work.

Grant Bess, a district teacher, cautioned that pay increase won’t be enough for some current and future employees.

It won’t be enough for physical therapists, who are increasingly earning doctorate degrees, he said. Bess’ wife is a physical therapist.

Bess said his monthly pay increase under the new pay schedule will be $15 per month.

Many wake County teachers, including a prior 1% local salary supplement increase and higher pay from the state, will earn about $1,000 to $6,300 more annually this year, depending on their experience level and whether they are eligible for a “step” increase based on experience.

Pay increases will be minimal, however, for teachers who aren’t eligible for a step increase at the state level, because the state funds only one step increase once a teacher hits 15 years of experience.

Last month, the Wake County school board voted to pay all workers starting out at least $13 per hour, up from as low as $11.58 per hour.

Wage employees and school board members have said they were frustrated with only raising minimum pay, because of the “compression” of wage increases that creates cross experience levels. In some cases, a new hire would earn just as much now as a person with several years of experience.

The board has also approved thousands of dollars in signing bonuses and retention bonuses to thousands of employees and is set to provide three more, totaling $3,750 for full-time employees, in 2022, using one-time federal COVID-19 stimulus funds. The more than $80 million bonus plan for 2022 will use up a quarter of the district’s remaining stimulus funds, which mostly last through Sept. 30, 2024.

A WRAL News review of vacancy data show signing bonuses haven’t necessarily coincided with better fill rates in Wake County, depending on the job.

The cost of living in Wake County has risen as growth has exploded.

Currently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator calls a “living wage” for an adult without children to be $16.32 per hour in Wake County. In a two-adult household with three children, in which both adults work, a “living wage” would be $28.67 per hour for each adult.

Beyond sharp housing price increases in the area, child care costs for working parents have also risen.

The Economic Policy Institute reports the average annual cost of infant care in the state is $9,480 — more than the cost of a year of in-state, four-year college tuition.

New funding needed

The changes would cost $38.9 million in district funds for the 2021-22 school year.

To maintain the funding amounts, the district would need $60.6 million annually — more than what it has available this year.

The district has $40.5 million in funding available for this year.

The $60.6 million includes $21.7 million that would be needed next year to fund a full fiscal year, beginning July 1, of minimum wage increases and associated increases in pay steps. The proposal would fund those for half of this fiscal year, beginning Jan. 1, 2022, instead of the full fiscal year.

State lawmakers, in the state budget for next year, intend to provide a $15 per hour minimum wage.

If lawmakers follow through on that promise, the district would need to only spend $13 million in local funds to maintain the pay scales — which address step compression, unlike the state budget — annually. If the state does not fund that increase, the district would need $21.7 million.

EARLIER:

The Wake County Board of Education will consider a proposal Tuesday night to raise pay for all employees.

Wake schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten told WRAL News on Monday that the compensation would be on top of what the school board and the state General Assembly approved last month.

Details aren’t yet available on most of what the compensation would be.

The proposal could increase minimum employee pay to $15 per hour, according to memos sent to employees. About 3,600 school district employees are currently paid less than $15 per hour.

One of the memos, sent to instructional assistants and reviewed by WRAL News, says the district will propose a higher minimum wage for instructional assistants.

District officials have also previously communicated to employees that they wanted to request higher minimum pay for bus drivers, who currently earn $15 per hour starting out, but would need to work with state and local officials on obtaining the money to do so.

That was before a new state budget raised minimum pay to $13 per hour this year and $15 per hour next year. Wake County had already allocated its own money to pay for minimum wage increases to $13 per hour. Now that money will come from the state instead of county taxes.

Wake schools employees and school board members have said they were frustrated with only raising minimum pay, because of the “compression” of wage increases that creates across experience levels. In some cases, a new hire would earn just as much now as a person with several years of experience. Employees across experience levels have been pressing the school board and the state for months and even years for raises after years of stagnant wages and frozen step increases.

Cafeteria workers and bus drivers have each staged "sick outs" this fall to protest working conditions strained by staffing shortages – in part because of low pay – and, in the case of cafeteria workers, supply shortages.

The state by law funds education, and counties fund education facilities. Counties often use their own tax dollars to fund more positions and to pay more than what the state provides.

Tuesday's meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. People supporting higher wages plan to rally before the meeting.

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