“It is the responsibility of the Legislature to fund teacher pay,” District 2 incumbent Democrat Ellen Frost declared at the July 30 Council of Independent Business Owners candidate forum.
But though most school funding comes from the state, the county does provide a supplement each year, usually about 20 percent of total school funding. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, for example, local sources (mostly Buncombe County) provided nearly $54 million of the school system’s $244.5 million budget.
The county can also choose to contribute additional funds. In the current budget, the commissioners approved $1.2 million to cover a teacher pay raise state lawmakers were expected to approve, which would also apply to teachers whose salaries are paid by the county, and $575,000 to help the county schools retain teacher assistants whose jobs might otherwise be cut.
Frost, however, maintained that “While county pay increases may work in the short term, in the long term we would be putting teacher pay raises entirely on the backs of Buncombe County taxpayers.”
District 3 unafilliated candidate Nancy Waldrop, a former teacher, concurred, saying, “We don’t want to see the county take over the state’s role. Nobody wants to see North Carolina at the bottom of the teacher pay scale, but the county only has property and sales tax dollars to fund teacher pay, and tax dollars are not infinite. We need to work closely with the Legislature to find solutions, but … the worst thing would be to have a pay raise one year and rescind it the next.”
According to Frost, the school supplement alone accounts for about 5 cents of the property tax (currently 56.9 cents per $100 of assessed value).
But Republican Christina Merrill, who’s challenging Frost in District 2, said: “What I want to do as commissioner is find out where the money is. So if the state does increase the pay raise … there is money that can be used. As a mother whose children went through county schools, I know how important it is that teachers are paid well for what they do.”
District 3 Republican candidate Miranda DeBruhl said the county has enough money to consistently fund teacher raises regardless of what the Legislature does. “We just have to get our priorities straight; money is fungible.”
“Above all,” said Waldrop, “teachers want to be treated fairly and respected. They don’t want to be used as political grandstanding.”
Meanwhile, after weeks of wrangling, state lawmakers released a final budget July 30 that included a teacher pay raise averaging 7 percent. As this issue went to press, however, the full Legislature hadn’t yet approved the budget and the governor hadn’t signed it.
What this means for the county schools is not entirely clear at this point. But if there’s one thing all the candidates seemed to agree on, it’s that the issue of teacher pay isn’t going away anytime soon.
For more on the candidates and the forum, see our additional article here.