Think Wake schools should pay support staff $17.33 an hour? It could cost $98 million

·5 min read

It would cost an additional $98 million a year from local taxpayers to provide school employees with livable wages, according to Wake County school officials.

Wake County school administrators blame low salaries — which are mainly state funded — for vacancy rates of more than 10% for positions such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teacher assistants and maintenance workers. School administrators laid out a $98 million scenario Monday for using local dollars to raise the minimum salary for support staff to $17.33 an hour.

Administrators stressed Monday that they’re not recommending the new scenario at this time. Instead, they’re waiting to see what raises might be provided in this year’s state budget.

Several school board members said Monday that some action is needed to raise salaries. Board member Jim Martin suggested using one-time federal COVID relief money to start raising salaries now to try to pressure the state or county commissioners.

“We need to do some forcing the hand so that three to five years down the road, the state or the county is going to have to either say ‘Oh, we’re cutting all that money’ or come up with it,” Martin said. “Maybe it’s bold action, but I’m ready for bold action. This has gone on too long.”

High vacancy rates for staff

There’s urgency to act because high vacancy rates are straining the ability of schools nationally to get students to and from class, to properly feed students and to ensure they’re being taught.

Wake, which is North Carolina’s largest school district, has a 30% vacancy rate among child nutrition staff, 17% for bus drivers, 15% for instructional assistants and 15% for maintenance and operations staff. As of Thursday, Wake was short 433 instructional assistants, 277 cafeteria workers and 139 bus drivers.

The shortages have forced Wake to change bus routes this year, leading to complaints about how much longer it’s taking for students to get to school and back home. The shortages caused Wake to “pause” its summer learning program for year-round and modified-calendar students even though most still had weeks to go before completion.

Wake has offered $1,200 recruitment bonuses for new bus drivers and instructional assistants. The state is giving $10 million for school districts to provide bonuses for new and existing child nutrition workers.

Other districts have offered bonuses and higher salaries as well to try to attract people.

“There are other counties who are significantly bypassing us, not by a little bit,” said board member Karen Carter. “If someone can go somewhere and make $30 more ... per day, that’s huge.

“In order for Wake County to stay competitive, we are now to the point where either we do this or there will be other implications that we will continue to have to face.”

State providing little in raises for staff

Wake school leaders say a major problem is that the state hasn’t kept up with providing raises for school staff since the recession of 2009. Over the past 11 state budgets, support staff have gotten no increase in six years and only a bonus of $500 or $1,000 in two years.

The starting salary of a teacher assistant was $11.28 in the 2008-09 school year. More than a decade later, it’s $11.80 an hour.

The past two years have seen no raises for support staff due to the budget fight between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. and the Republican majority in the state legislature. Cooper has vetoed the last two budgets, in part because he said the raises weren’t big enough.

“We should not have to do this locally,” Martin said. “The state should be picking up this tab. They’re not.”

This year, both the House and Senate budgets called for raising the minimum salary to $13 an hour for support staff. The House budget also called for raising it to $15 an hour next year.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore are entering budget negotiations this week with Cooper, The News & Observer reported.

A local scenario for raises

In 2019, the school district introduced a $35 million, 5-year plan to use local funds to help supplement what the state provides to support staff. But if the state doesn’t do more to raise salaries, Wake school staff laid out a scenario Monday for using even more local funds to get salaries up.

In this new four-year scenario:

In year one, use $12 million in local funds to bring support staff to a minimum salary of $13 an hour.

In year two, use $27 million more than currently spent to bring staff to a minimum of $15 an hour.

In year three, use $51 million more than currently spent to bring staff to a minimum of $17.33 an hour.

In year four, use $98 million more than currently spent to maintain staff at $17.33 an hour and address salary compression. This is when current staff could make less or only slightly more than new workers.

Wake County government pays its workers a minimum of $17.33 an hour.

If the state doesn’t make a “meaningful across-the-board increase for support staff,” district administrators said they’ll likely recommend using $10 million in local funds for that purpose. That money is already available from funding approved by county commissioners this year.

Martin, the board member, said that the $98 million is not an unrealistic number for a county that is as wealthy as Wake.

“We can’t run a business with a personnel structure that simply underpays our employees and makes our employees basically work for free, which is what we’re doing,” Martin said.

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