The "root cause" of NC school troubles? Pay

Published February 22, 2024

By Public Ed Works

The tragic closures of Durham schools in recent weeks forced a superintendent and a CFO to resign, infuriated parents and damaged trust in the schools. 

Worst of all, it hurt more than 31,000 students in Durham Public Schools.

But newly appointed Interim Superintendent Catty Moore put her finger on the problem – not just in Durham, but across the state – when she voiced support Friday for better pay for both educators and staff.

“When we think about really the root cause of what we’re looking at here – staff in our schools in the state of North Carolina need to be better compensated, top to bottom,” Moore said.1

In neighboring Alamance County, school officials face a projected $3.2 million budget shortfall. They considered eliminating 54 jobs until the county commissioners provided an additional $250,000 to delay the reductions.

“We are in a financial crisis,” said Board of Education Chair Sandy Ellington-Graves. “Now we face unimaginable choices, cutting resources, cutting programs, and potentially cutting staff.”2

Though the district had extensive – and expensive – problems with mold in schools last year, officials say the budget crisis is not related to that. Rather, they attribute it to rising utility costs, increased staff benefits, substitute teacher costs (hmmm – why so many substitutes?) and fluctuating insurance costs.3

School systems across the state are also grappling with the disappearance of federal Covid-relief funds next year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools alone will lose $60 million in federal dollars that pay for 768 jobs.4New Hanover County County Schools face a potential $20 million deficit and elimination of 279 positions – 160 of them teachers or teacher assistants.5

Back in Durham, Moore is a veteran of public education as a teacher, principal and administrator. She retired last year after five years as superintendent of Wake County’s schools, the state’s largest school system.

For 35 years, she has lived what has become of public school funding in North Carolina.

BUT WHEN YOU RANK 49TH in the country for school funding effort, there’s not much about which to brag.

The Education Law Center released its latest Making the Grade 2023 report last month. North Carolina ranked 49th – better only than Arizona – in the percentage of its economic output (Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) it devotes to PK-12 public education.6

That means North Carolina has the capacity to devote far more of its economy to public education, as other states do. But it doesn’t do it. The Education Law Center gave the state an ‘F’ grade. (Our state legislators like letter grades for institutions.)

North Carolina has been ranked No. 1 in business by CNBC for two straight years.7 Gov. Roy Cooper likes to say the top three things corporate executives ask about are “workforce, workforce and workforce.”8

If the state doesn’t do a better job investing in its workforce, that No. 1 ranking won’t last much longer.

North Carolina needs to heed Dr. Moore’s advice and increase pay for our teachers, our bus drivers and school staff.

6, pp. 22-23.