Apex High School teachers rally for better pay

aramos@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2014 

— Britt Morton loves teaching and coaching. But he says he can’t afford to do it in North Carolina anymore.

Morton, a football and wrestling coach at Apex High School, is one of many teachers leaving Wake County schools due to low pay.

North Carolina ranks 47th in the country for teachers’ salaries, according to the National Education Association. More than 600 Wake County teachers have resigned since the start of the school year, with school officials saying low pay is one of the reasons.

Wake County school board members say they’re not giving up on trying to get county commissioners to fund a 3.5 percent pay raise for all school employees, even though it’s an uphill battle.

Frustrated and hoping for better wages, about 40 teachers dressed in red marched outside Apex High School before classes began Wednesday morning.

One sign read: “N.C. State Education First in Teacher Flight,” a play on the state’s license plate logo.

Another read: “Preparing kids for college while wondering if I can send mine.”

“We haven’t had a pay raise in seven years,” said Morton, a physical education teacher and Apex native who has been teaching 17 years. “My wife and I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. We don’t go out to eat every night. We haven’t had a vacation in three years.

“Everyone signed up for the job knowing you’re not going to make much money. But you’ve got to make a living. This isn’t about politics.”

Morton plans to move to Georgia, where he says he and his wife, who is also a teacher, will each earn an additional $10,000 a year.

That will ease a financial burden, Morton said. He worked as a landscaper last summer to help pay the bills.

First-year teachers in Wake County earn about $35,000 a year. Teachers who achieve national board certification can get a 12 percent raise in North Carolina, but the state no longer pays for the certification process. The state also eliminated extra money for teachers who earn master’s degrees after May.

Some educators say the lack of extra pay for advanced degrees and the state’s attempt to end teacher tenure have led to a higher-than-normal teacher turnover rate – about 12 percent in Wake County.

Megan Fackler-Bretz has been teaching English at Apex High School for 16 years. She’s not leaving her job, but she said she has seriously considered it.

“I think it’s unfair what’s happening to teachers and as a result to the kids,” Fackler-Bretz said. “I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck. A majority of the teachers here work a second or third job, and most have an advanced degree.”

Apex High School is losing about 13 teachers this year, said principal Matt Wight. The school typically loses about five people a year to retirement, relocations or career changes.

“For us to have to lose that many, for us to be in the double digits is unprecedented,” Wight said. “And I have had a few others come and tell me they are looking to go to other states. I had one teacher tell me he and his wife just had their first child and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment.”

Pay raises in question

It’s unclear whether teachers will get a raise, although legislative leaders say that it’s a goal this year. The Wake County school board asked county commissioners for more money for teacher salaries, but a proposed county budget does not include a 3.5 percent pay increase.

“It’s very critical to me the we continue to advocate for the resources we need in Wake County to bring excellence to every single school, and that starts with high quality teacher workforce, teaching assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said at Tuesday’s meeting. “So know that we will continue to discuss these issues with the county commissioners.”

School board vice chairman Tom Benton said that not providing the resources schools need is “failing as a society.”

“We’re at a time where we’ve got to decide as a county if we want to not just sustain excellence in some of our schools, but are we ready to step up to the table to provide the funding to make sure we have excellence in all of our schools?” Benton said.

School board member Jim Martin said that board members should stress to county and state leaders that they are just trying to make up for the years in which teachers haven’t gotten step increases in the state pay scale.

“We’re not talking about being glamorous and giving luxury,” Martin said. “We’re talking about making good on what was promised.”

Instead of proposing a county-funded pay hike, the county Board of Commissioners will ask its legislative delegation to press for teacher pay raises at the state level. Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal, unveiled earlier this month, includes a 2 percent raise this year for teachers.

“We know the legislature is in session,” said Gregg Thomas, a social studies teacher at Apex High School who helped organize Wednesday’s rally. “There are some positive things they can do to help. We’re concerned about the quality of education.”

At 6:50 a.m. Wednesday, as school began, teachers put down their signs and filed into the building. There were classes to teach.

Staff writers Martha Quillin, Lynn Bonner and T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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