From left, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, Gov. Pat McCrory and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest enter the media center at Ragsdale High in Jamestown. / AP
ASHEVILLE — A plan announced by Gov. Pat McCrory and top state lawmakers Monday to boost educator pay would offer a bigger paycheck to one-fourth of North Carolina’s public school teachers.
Teachers with up to nine years experience would get staggered raises ranging from 2 percent to 14 percent, with all teachers from one to nine years experience making the same salary by 2015.
But the plan also offers nothing for many of the state’s experienced educators, with some left getting the same salary as a teacher stepping into the classroom for the first time.
“Teachers all around me are walking around today like someone died,” Roberson High School English teacher Lindsay Kosmala Furst said.
“We feel like we’ve been punched in the gut,” she said. “This is not what we wanted.”
McCrory and top state lawmakers promised to commit about $200 million over the next two years to raise pay for starting teachers from $30,800 a year to $35,000.
That means Furst, who will start her ninth year of teaching in 2015, would make the same salary as a first-year teacher.
“It devalues experienced teachers,” Furst said. “By saying, ‘hold on, we’ll get back to you’ to veteran teachers, it won’t do anything to stem the exodus.”
The agreement to improve teacher salaries that are now among the nation’s lowest has a strong chance of becoming law with McCrory as governor and fellow Republicans in control of the legislature.
McCrory, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said the deal announced at the governor’s old high school in Jamestown is a down payment.
Raises for more teachers and state employees are possible this year if state revenues continue rebounding after shrinking because of the Great Recession that started more than six years ago, they said.
“It’s a great first step,” Sen. Tom Apodaca said. “And we hope there will be more soon, but the teachers here in years zero through nine had to be our first priority.”
McCrory credited cuts by lawmakers to cope with the recession and policy changes implemented since Republicans took control of the General Assembly three years ago for making money available for teacher raises.
North Carolina was 47th during 2012-13 among the states for average starting salaries, according to the National Education Association. The $35,000 minimum would vault North Carolina into the middle of those rankings and near the top of the list for Southeastern rivals.
Teacher salaries have been held down since 2008, except for a 1.2 percent increase in 2012. Teachers have seen their base salary stuck at $30,800 until after their fifth year on the job. Teachers with six and seven years of experience earn a base salary of less than $33,000.
Based on the pay schedule teachers signed up for before the recession hit, most educators would be making well above the proposed salary amounts.
“If teachers had never once had a ‘raise’ in the last seven years, then I would be making $38,210 in 2015,” Furst said. “That’s with no raise. What we’ve had is no movement at all. All I really want is my steps back.”
Furst said she is concerned the proposal includes no plan for reinstating a teacher salary schedule, making it impossible to plan for a financial future.
“People are leaving classrooms because they feel desperate now,” Furst said. “We’ve been holding on and holding on, and, unless there’s a schedule reinstated, we’re just being asked to hold on indefinitely, until what? Until another five years goes by before we get another raise?”
Apodaca said lawmakers hope to address the schedule issue, though it may not look like it used to.
“I feel teachers deserve more money … and we are discussing that schedule,” he said. “But they should expect there to be some performance-based pay in that. It won’t just be a percentage anymore.
“We’ll also be looking at other state employees,” Apodaca said. “Teachers forget sometimes that they aren’t the only ones in North Carolina.”
At least 25,000 of the state’s 95,000 teachers would benefit from the promised increases, according to a document explaining the proposal obtained by The Associated Press.
Nearly 9,000 more teachers and other instructors paid by federal and local funds would get raises because their salaries are based on the statewide pay schedule, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal research staff.
If North Carolina had increased salaries at the rate of the national average, the average salary would be $52,923, or $7,000 more than the current average salary of about $45,000 per year, according to data from the NEA.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” North Carolina Association of Educators Vice President Mark Jewell said. “But we are sorely disappointed that the majority of teachers have been told, ‘check back with us later.’
“This may increase our rankings in base salary for beginning teachers,” Jewell said, “but it does nothing to address our more experienced teachers. Those other 70,000 teachers — they’re just left with nothing.”
“This is a good thing for beginning educators, so I would not want to look the other way or to deny them that benefit,” said Paula Dinga, a third-grade teacher at Estes Elementary with 17 years of teaching experience. “But it’s also ignoring a large population of teachers who have been trying to find hope that things will improve.”
Berger and Tillis also announced they’ll revise an unpopular legislative decision last summer to phase out higher pay for advance degrees. Lawmakers decided to cut off the pay bump for teachers who earned a master’s degree after this spring. The change would allow raises for teachers who began work on a master’s degree before last July.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.