Asheville – Three months into the fiscal year, the North Carolina General Assembly approved a $30 billion budget. Local governments, whose budgets are considerably dependent on state funding, however, get no slack in having to complete their budgets long before the state gets around to doing the same. This year, amidst outcry from teachers for living wages, Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder set aside funds to bolster teacher pay should the state fall short.
A budget amendment was therefore hastily added to the commissioners’ October 3 agenda. It would provide Asheville City and Buncombe County schools funds sufficient to provide all school staff with a 2% pay increase. The commissioners approved it unanimously, but those who spoke during public comment considered it a meager gesture.
Soren Pedersen, a graduate of UNC Asheville who is now active in the local Democratic Party, shared some statistics. His numbers are presented here without fact-checking.
He used 2017 as a reference point because that was the last year that the county adjusted the local supplement it pays teachers. Pedersen asserted that, while starting teacher pay has increased 11% since 2017, adjusted for inflation, salaries have fallen from $45,000 to $39,000. On the one hand, the state had let teachers down because North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay.
On the other hand, “Buncombe County is the single most expensive community in all of North Carolina,” he said. Whereas statewide, the cost of living has increased by 45%, in Buncombe County, it has increased by 89%. Rent, for example, has increased 110%. Now, the average teacher has to pay $18,000 a year just for a one-bedroom apartment.
“So, while I can appreciate the folks who are here who have come before you and said that this is the job of the state and the state has failed and we need you to step in and do what the state has not done, the fact is that even if the state had been accomplishing what we sent them there to do and representing their communities, the county would still need to be doing more,” said Pedersen.
According to Pedersen’s calculations, if the state were doing its job, teachers would be getting $55,000 a year instead of $39,000. Then again, if the state were doing its job, teachers would still be asking the county for a 33% raise, “because that is the amount that would end the gap between a state teacher and a teacher in our very expensive local community.” The 7% total pay increase the commissioners were considering would still leave starting teacher pay short of the living wage.
“It is not acceptable to ask our teachers to come to work every day, teach our students, be there for our students’ needs, and then go home and spend almost half their pre-tax salary toward living in our community,” he said.
Sam Riddle, budget analyst for the county, explained the 7% pay increase for school employees would be phased in over two years. This brought total spending on public schools over $113 million, representing a year-over-year increase of 16.58%. For perspective, Riddle said school spending constituted 22 cents of the county’s 49.8-cent tax rate, and it doesn’t include the supplement paid by the Asheville City Schools taxing district.
Under the leadership of former interim county manager and turnaround artist George Wood, the commissioners agreed that, beginning in 2019, they would tie school spending to revenue growth. Chair Brownie Newman pointed out, however, that actual spending on schools is now twice what it would have been had the county stuck to that formula. Until last year, year-over-year increases had only been in the single digits.
Newman said the county had been paying teachers respectably seven to eight years ago. He wanted the people in the room to know the commissioners had deep appreciation for their endeavors. He stressed that no other county in the state was increasing its school spending by more than 25%. Furthermore, the county’s 26% increase in spending did not include the millions the county was spending on early childhood education and other investments in public education.
Riddle said $6.1 million would cover the 7% pay increases for both school districts, but Commissioner Amanda Edwards reminded the listening audience that while the commissioners approve education funding, the school districts retain the discretion to use funding as they see fit. Riddle agreed and said both districts had assured him that the amount was adequate for teacher pay increases. In Buncombe County Schools, supplements are scaled for certified staff and disbursed at a flat rate for uncertified staff. In Asheville City Schools, all employees receive the same supplement.