Gov. Pat McCrory's administration sought Thursday to mend relations with North Carolina educators, responding to criticism about changes affecting public schools and teachers while seeking ways to build statewide consensus.
Eric Guckian, McCrory's education adviser, told hundreds of superintendents, principals and others who manage public schools that state political leaders are responding to complaints about low teacher pay, too much testing, and decisions that erode local control.
McCrory and legislative leaders are determined to raise starting pay of $30,800, where teachers have been stuck for years, Guckian told educators attending the North Carolina Association of School Administrators conference. Keeping good teachers in the classroom with better salaries will be a multi-year effort, he said.
McCrory and legislative leaders have said they plan to raise salaries for the least experienced teachers to $35,000 by the fall of 2015, but that could be expanded to include more educators if the state's finances allow. Action this year "is a first step in a comprehensive compensation plan" that could raise teacher salaries over several years, Guckian said.
"The talking point that North Carolina is going to hell in a hand-basket around education, that may win some elections and I understand this a volatile political environment and education is a little bit of a whiffle ball right now, but we have to come together around this issue," he said. "Gov. McCrory is listening and we are going to move forward with a comprehensive approach."
McCrory called the state's public schools "a broken system" during his 2012 election campaign. He also heaped that description on other functions of the government he took over from Democrats who controlled the state for more than a century.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat who spoke after Gukian, urged school administrators to press McCrory and lawmakers to find the money to raise teacher pay to at least the national average. Such a goal was met during Hunt's tenure in the 1990s through steady pay increases.
An annual study released this week said North Carolina was among the nation's worst for teacher pay and that the state's educators saw a 15 percent drop in average buying power in the past decade after inflation — the sharpest decline in the country. The state's average salary of $45,737 a year during 2012-13 was more than $10,000 below the national average, the National Education Association report said.
Mooresville Graded School District Superintendent Mark A. Edwards — honored last year as one of the country's best administrators — described walking into a supermarket with his teenage son while the two discussed whether the boy had an interest in teaching. The evening chat was interrupted when Edwards recognized one of his teachers mopping an aisle, a second job she held after school hours to make ends meet, Edwards said.
Republican legislative leaders have expressed limited interest in providing across-the-board salary increases, focusing instead on revamping teacher pay so that individual educators are rewarded for increasing student performance.
The debate about teacher pay comes amid education changes Republicans have spearheaded since taking over the Legislature in 2011. GOP leaders have faced lawsuits over their laws creating taxpayer-funded private-school scholarships and ending job-security rules for teachers.
While the changes have spurred school leaders to push improvements, they've also prompted complaints that lawmakers made the work of teachers harder. Educators also have gotten the message that lawmakers don't seem interested in their ideas, said Stephen Martin, the human resources director for Watauga County Schools.
"Whether you're a legislator or a business owner or a teacher, we all want to do our best. We all want to improve. The business owners that I know, the way they improve their businesses is by looking from within and talking to their employees or the people they work with," Martin said. "I think that as educators, we feel like we have a good feeling for what we need to do to improve education."