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School leaders frustrated by teacher pay raise plan

fr protestUnder normal circumstances, Mike Murray would be thrilled to pass out raises to the hard-working teachers in Jackson County.


But the round of raises coming down the pike for teachers next year is far from normal — so abnormal in fact that Murray would rather ship them back to Raleigh with a note reading “return to sender.”

“I’ve equated it to the ‘Hunger Games’ of incentive packages,” said Murray, the superintendent of Jackson County Schools. “Or the ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ approach to raises.”

Murray isn’t alone in his distaste for the raises. 

But school systems don’t have the option of politely declining, said Dr. Bill Nolte, the assistant superintendent in Haywood County. Or impolitely declining, as the case may be. Haywood County School Board Member Lynn Milner, a retired principal, quipped that the newspaper probably shouldn’t print what she has to say about the raises.

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So what could be so bad about teacher raises?

The state has allotted raises for only 25 percent of public school teachers and left each school system to figure out which 25 percent will get them — and the other 75 percent who won’t be getting anything.

There are other stipulations as well. The raises are only for $500 a year — before taxes — and expire after four years. Teachers who take the raise have to give up tenure. And to be eligible, they have to have been in the same school system for at least three years. 

“We have a lot of great teachers in our system who aren’t part of the eligible pool because they haven’t been here three years,” Murray said.

Lawmakers conceived of the plan after catching flak for yet another year without raises for public school teachers. North Carolina now ranks 48th in the nation in teacher pay, thanks to years of stagnating salaries.

But scrounging up money to give only 25 percent of teachers a raise is worse than no raises at all in the eyes of superintendents, principals and even the teachers themselves.

Some teachers are already planning to decline the raise if they are chosen for one.

“A lot have indicated they will be opting out if it is offered to them,” said Baldwin, based on the scuttlebutt from teachers in Macon County.

Murray heard the same thing from Jackson teachers after holding an open meeting last week to talk about the raise dilemma. About 100 teachers showed up.

“I had several teachers email me afterward telling me they were almost insulted by this carrot and stick approach,” Murray said. “A lot of teachers feel their tenure rights aren’t for sale.”

But Murray implored teachers not to judge those who do take the raise.

“We are a school family. Don’t allow this to be divisive. Don’t let there be hard feelings against those who do decide to take it,” Murray told teachers. “We have people who haven’t gotten raises in six years and who are struggling and working two jobs.”


Bad for morale

The worst fear among superintendents is the potential for ill will and hurt feelings among those who don’t make the 25-percent cut for the raises.

“This has the potential of having people working against each other,” Nolte said.

The selective raise system undermines what school systems try to encourage — teachers sharing ideas and strategies and working together as a team to educate students, school officials said.

“If you have people competing then that could be very divisive,” Murray said.

Baldwin also fears creating animosity between individual schools in Macon County. He hopes to apply the raises on a school-by-school basis, so that 25 percent of the teachers at each school get the raise instead of just 25 percent system-wide. 

For now, teachers realize the impossible situation superintendents are being placed in and realize the system is inherently unfair, Baldwin said.

“But at the end of the day, I am going to be legislated to provide a list of 69 people who are eligible for a $500 raise. That list will be made public and 210 people’s names aren’t going to be on it,” Baldwin said. “When that day comes, they are going to be disappointed and angry and they are going to place that somewhere.”


How to choose

Ultimately, who to dish out the raises to is up to each superintendent. But it’s not a job they cherish. Instead, they are reaching out to principals and teachers themselves to help come up with a list — or rather the criteria that would in turn determine the list.

In Haywood County, the school system has named a committee to tackle the raise conundrum.

“It is impacting teachers so we want them to be part of this process. We want to develop a sound, reasonable process and then implement it,” Nolte said.

Unfortunately, the schools can’t just put names in a hat and drawn them out. That would be ignoring the intent of law.

Murray sent out a survey to every teacher in Jackson County after the public meeting he held last week to get their input.

“What I am asking is, help me determine evaluation criteria,” Murray said. 

Should the school system go by student test scores? Which teachers have master’s degrees? Which have worked for advanced certifications?

Like Murray, Baldwin has also sent an email to all teachers in Macon County asking for their input on what criteria to use.

School systems already have a process and criteria in place already for evaluating teacher performance. To suggest schools are starting with a blank slate would be misleading. There’s a plethora of annual test scores that track students’ academic growth and success under specific teachers, for example. But that isn’t a complete picture. What about teachers for special needs students? Or teachers in kindergarten, first and second grades, where students don’t take tests yet?

“To compare an elementary teacher to a high school teacher to determine which is a better teacher, it would be a completely different criteria,” Baldwin said.

But the biggest problem for schools is coming up with performance measures that arrive exactly at the magic number of 25 percent.

In Macon County, it comes out to 69 teachers.

“Let’s say the criteria you decide on gets you to 75. What criteria could you keep adding?” Baldwin said. 

As they try to winnow the number further, however, the next layer of criteria could take the number down to 50, again failing to hit the 69 mark, this time on the low end.

Most likely, it will be impossible to slice and dice the criteria to arrive exactly at 69.

“So at some point we would have to have a lottery,” Baldwin said. “It is going to put us in a tough position.”



Raises by county

North Carolina will pass out raises to 25 percent of teachers next year, leaving it up to each school system to decide which teachers get it and which don’t. To be eligible, a teacher must have worked in the district for three years. Here’s what the raises will look like by county.

• Haywood: 101 teachers will get a raise out of 408 in the eligible pool.

• Jackson: 67 teachers will get a raise out of 275 in the eligible pool

• Macon: 69 teachers will get a raise out of 278 in the eligible pool

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