Last Thursday’s public hearing for the Orange County manager’s 2016–2017 budget recommendations was packed, as expected. A sheriff’s deputy worked the meeting-room door at Chapel Hill’s Southern Human Services Building to regulate entry; some latecomers were relegated to the hallway. Inside, parents who couldn’t get seats lined two walls in the back.

Inside and outside the room, supporters of better teacher pay waved plastic red plates to make their presence known. Most speakers who took the podium were there to plead for that, to demand it.

“We’re asking you to empower us to create a legacy,” said Northside Elementary School principal Coretta Sharpless.

School budget meetings will always bring a crowd in Orange County, where there’s a high premium on educational excellence. That’s especially true in recent years, as notoriously low pay throughout the state has led teachers to look elsewhere. That’s why the school boards for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools have submitted budget proposals that well exceed county manager Bonnie Hammersley’s recommendations.

Hammersley wants to increase spending for the two systems by $2.7 million, an additional $24.53 per student. But CHCCS alone wants a $4.5 million boost, based on a pledge to give teachers a 5 percent raise and all other employees a 3 percent raise. That promise is just short of ironclad, school officials say. Their top priority is teacher pay, which could mean more pain throughout the system if funding comes up short.

“We haven’t really had a discussion of that potential shortfall, if it happens,” says CHCCS board chairman James Barrett. “We’ve done ten million dollars’ worth of cuts in the last several years. Anything we do is going to increase class sizes or reduce the number of adults that are helping our kids. All of those things are going to have an impact.”

Meanwhile, the somewhat smaller Orange County Schools asked for an increase of $3.8 million, of which $1.7 million would go toward boosting supplements to state salaries.

Together, those requests total $8.3 million, more than three times what Hammersley offered.

CHCCS and OCS are going big with their requests because they’re facing fierce competition from better-paying districts. “Other states are actively recruiting our best and brightest teachers,” Erika Newkirk, who recruits teachers for CHCCS, told county commissioners. “Every job fair that I went to, Nevada and Texas were both there. And they had huge banners with starting salaries of over fifty thousand dollars.”

Wake County is another potential poacher. The school system now offers a 17.25 percent supplement—the best in the state—to the state salary, which starts at $35.000. CHCCS offers a 12 percent supplement, the fourth best in the state, behind Wake, Durham, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg. CHCCS wants to get in the game with a 16 percent supplement.

“This is the first year in many years that we’ve actually had vacancies at the elementary level,” said Newkirk. “Our district has never had a problem recruiting elementary teachers before.”

In the $22.2 billion budget the state House passed last Wednesday, the average teacher raise would be 4.1 percent. The current average salary of $47,985, including county supplements, places North Carolina below all four neighboring states and forty-first in the nation. The lack of love for public schools pushed turnover rates in both CHCCS and OCS to at least 18 percent last year, a hair over the national average and a few percentage points higher than the state mean.

Students at Thursday’s meeting stepped up to the podium to tell now-familiar stories of favorite teachers spending out of pocket for supplies—or just making due without them. One sixth grader told commissioners that she’d seen teachers making assignments on half-sheets of paper, due to a shortage. Also: “Our science textbooks still say Pluto is a planet.”

The commissioners were mostly there to listen, but one argued that they were already doing more than other counties. Chairman Earl McKee contrasted Orange County’s spending with the $1,500 average local supplement in the state. “Orange County is, far and away, much higher,” McKee said.

One parent said he’d take another tax hike if commissioners spent more on teachers. After all, good schools brought many taxpayers to Orange County in the first place, said another who spoke after him.

“Practically speaking, our community would not be successful without our teachers,” said Lynn Lehmann, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation. “Our [property values] would not continue to rise without them. Businesses would not set up their shops here without the excellent reputation of our teachers.”

The final budget is scheduled to be adopted on June 21.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Hot for Teachers”