Teachers and staff members gave a standing ovation late Thursday night as the Buncombe County Board of Education unanimously voted to approve their most generous budget proposal.
The budget — including a 7% supplemental pay increase for certified staff including teachers and a 7.4% raise for classified staff such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers in addition to state-level raises — will now go to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners for approval.
“Budgets are a reflection of priorities,” board member Rob Elliot said during the afternoon work session and again before voting on the budget.
“I want to thank [Superintendent] Dr. [Rob] Jackson for listening. He listened to students, he listened to teachers, he listened to parents and came back to us with budget options that in my opinion are student-focused. They prioritize our students and our school community,” he continued.
More than 20 teachers, staff members and parents spoke during the three-plus-hour meeting in the Minitorium at 175 Bingham Road, advocating for higher pay for all school employees in front of a crowd that at one point overflowed into an adjacent room with a live stream of the meeting.
Kim Martin, who has worked for BCS since 2004 as an American Sign Language interpreter, said she can barely survive even after a raise in 2022.
“I have raised four children while working for BCS full time and supplemented my income by literally working dozens of other jobs, including renting out every empty bedroom in my house, as well as relying on local food banks to feed my children,” she said.
Some employees directly addressed Buncombe County Commissioners Martin Moore and Al Whitesides, both sitting in the front row of the audience, to make their plea for higher compensation.
“I never thought we would get to a position where we are literally begging,” said Tate Macqueen, teacher and coach at Erwin High School as he glanced back and forth between the commissioners and school board members.
Ultimately, board members chose the largest of three budget options presented by Buncombe Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Tina Thorpe during a three-hour budget work session earlier Thursday afternoon to give employees the largest bump in pay.
The 7% raise in the local supplement for teachers brings a first-year teacher’s supplement to 15.5% of their base pay. Supplements are paid by each district to reflect the local cost of living and are calculated as a percentage of the state base pay and vary by years of experience.
Currently, a first-year teacher in North Carolina makes a base pay of $37,000 a year, and BCS adds 8.5%. The state is expected to raise base pay by 4.25% this year, and along with the proposed local supplement increase, a first-year teacher in Buncombe would make $44,551 annually.
The proposed budget also includes a retirement rate increase of half a percent and a total of $400,000 combined coach raises. Each coach would get an extra $300 plus a 10% increase to their pay.
Jackson also included $1.8 million for new positions, including four school counselors, several more English as a second language teachers and ESL specialists, three cybersecurity technicians, an assistant director of transportation and an assistant superintendent of educational equity and support services.
In total, if approved by the county commissioners at its June budget meeting, last year’s BCS budget would go up by $33.9 million to nearly $116 million.
Still, advocates argue it’s not enough for classified staff such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.
The agreed-upon budget expedites recommendations from a 2022 salary study that pushed the district to raise classified staff pay by an average of 17.4% over three years. Those staff members would get an average of a 7.4% raise this year instead of spreading that out over two more years, Thorpe said.
For a first-year entry-level custodian, this raise, including the expected 4.25% raise from the state, would bring their pay from $15 an hour to more than $18 an hour.
Advocate Joan Hoffman, a teacher at A.C. Reynolds High School and member of the Buncombe County Association of Educators, asked board members to give the lowest paid staff members at least a 10% raise to get them closer to Just Economics’ living wage of $20.10.
“This will certainly not get them to our goal but will bring them one step closer to the dignity of a living wage,” she said.
During the work session earlier in the day, Thorpe and Jackson said custodians are paid out of state buckets of money because of liability issues related to workers’ compensation insurance, and therefore beyond the control of local budget makers.
“We want to advocate for them to get as much as they possibly can. I don’t want the message to be that we can’t. From county dollars, we can’t go that route,” Jackson said.
“If local [government] can’t pick it up, that doesn’t mean we can’t do it; that means we need to passionately argue for it at the state level,” he continued.
After the meeting, Buncombe County Association of Educators President Shanna Peele said she was thrilled with the result.
“The increased pay for all staff, especially classified, is a much-needed boost to move our salaries toward a living wage. The addition of student-facing [counselors and specialists] for some of our most vulnerable populations is also a win for our students and community. While our state continues to defund public education after years of cuts and through the expansion of the voucher program, our local school board is taking a stand to ask our county commission to meet our students’ needs now,” she said in an email to Xpress.
The vote came after Asheville City Schools passed a similar budget April 17, which included a 7% supplement increase for all certified staff and proposed increasing starting pay for all hourly employees to $20 per hour.
Buncombe County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the entire 2023-24 budget including the education budgets at a June 20 meeting.