Chatham teacher group wants bonuses, pay raises for classified staff

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PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Association of Educators (CCAE) is asking the county’s board of education to use federal relief dollars to recruit and retain staff.

A petition posted last week on The Action Network, an online organizing platform, said demands on Chatham schools’ staff have been “extraordinary in recent times.”

“Vacant positions and extra duties have strained already excessive workloads and schedules,” reads the petition, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Educators. “We firmly believe that what makes Chatham County schools an excellent school system for our students is its personnel. We fear this excellence is in jeopardy as these additional responsibilities are resulting in burnout and exhaustion amongst employees. We feel it is right that all staff be compensated for the extra time and work they have put in over the last 2 years.”

Petition organizers plan to share signatures — more than 400 as of Wednesday, with more than 150 online — with the school board at its Dec. 13 meeting; many staff members plan to make public comments as well.

“We are not angry with the school board. We just want to make our concerns heard,” a petition organizer and Northwood High School teacher Edward Walgate told the News + Record. “And we know the superintendent and county office are supportive of more compensation for staff. We would like to work with them to ensure high quality staff can be recruited and retained.”

COVID-relief funds

North Carolina school districts have so far spent about $1.1 billion of their allotted relief money, or about 20% of the total, a November NC Watchdog Reporting Network report found. At Chatham County Schools, the district had $16.84 million remaining from its more than $22 million COVID-relief-related funds — a fact the petition calls out.

“We feel a substantial amount of this money should be invested in fairly compensating school employees,” the petition says. “This will allow Chatham County to attract and retain the highly qualified personnel that make our school system one of the best in the state.”

Though the district had only spent a little more than $5 million of its COVID-relief funds as of November, some of its previously approved spending plans include allotments of funds over the next two to three years.

The second round of funding, Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER II), must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2023, to be spent by the end of that year, while ESSER III must last until Sept. 30, 2024. School districts are expected to use some of their ESSER II funding for last year’s summer learning costs, along with next year’s.

In June, funding for the following new positions for the next three years was approved:

• One certified instructional position for each elementary, middle and K-8 school

• A high school dropout prevention position for each high school

• District translator

• Digital learning instruction program facilitator

• K-12 literacy program facilitator

• Equity executive director

• Contracted mental health services for in-school therapy

• Two counselors, three social workers, two nurses, three ESL teachers and 23 instruction assistants to support K-3 learning loss and class sizes

In September, the board approved a retention and recruitment bonus plan for district employees from its relief funds, which gave all full-time employees a $1,250 one-time bonus and all part-time employees a one-time bonus of $650. Under the plan, employees who join the district between Oct. 11 and Dec. 13 and who made a “firm time commitment” for how long they’ll stay in the system would receive a signing bonus — $1,500 for classified employees and $3,500 for certified employees.

Even so, additional potential unallocated funds remain. The petition, then, was developed in support of CCS students, staff and Superintendent Anthony Jackson, and calls for an additional $2,750 bonus to be given to every staff member — which would total about $3.3 million of ESSER funds.

The petition also calls for an increase in classified staff wages to more than $15 per hour — until the state wage levels take full effect — and to raise the rate for substitute pay to $130 per day for certified staff with teaching licenses and $100 per day for non-certified staff. (The minimum wage for school staff will rise to $13 an hour, up from as low as $11, this school year, under the newly passed state budget, and then to $15 an hour next fall.)

“A major concern is the current pay of classified staff,” Walgate said. “Some of our custodians have been working here for many years and only make $12.40/hour. Our head custodian started off making around $11/hour, 23 years ago and she now makes $12.55/hour. We have struggled to find substitute teachers in the last year and part of that is the fact that they make $80/day if they are uncertified and $100/day if they are certified.”

The state budget

The first full state budget since 2017, signed into law last month by Gov. Roy Cooper, allocates hundreds of millions of dollars to increase educator compensation pay over the next two years.

While lawmakers are publicizing average pay raises of 5% over the next two years, many teachers are frustrated due to the fact that the increase in base pay this year amounts to, in most cases, about $50 to $65 per month. North Carolina ranks 30th in the nation for teacher pay, not including pay for other school employees like cafeteria workers, janitors, instructional assistants and bus drivers.

School employees are eligible for bonuses from the state budget — up to $2,800 for teachers — but those are temporary.

The average 5% pay raise over two years includes annual step increases on the teacher salary schedule most teachers receive for each extra year of service. The 2.5% annual raise breaks down to a 1.3% bump in base salary each year, and an annual step increase for teachers with 15 years or less of service amounting to about a 1.2% raise.

The CCAE petition calls for an additional $2,750 bonus for all CCS employees, regardless of what bonuses they’re eligible for from the state.

“Please help our school staff, our school system, and our students by signing this petition,” the site reads. “Our kids and our classrooms can’t wait for us to recruit and retain the staff they need to learn.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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