As another wave of school employees went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions Tuesday, Wake County officials approved a series of bonuses in an effort to keep them in schools. 

The cafeteria worker strike is the second strike in two months among school staff, following a similar “sickout” by bus drivers during the last week of October. Protests have escalated recently as school staff try to convince lawmakers to approve extra pay for the extra work they’ve been doing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

For many teachers and staff, COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting them to resign or retire early. Now, a severe shortage of substitute teachers, bus drivers (17 percent of positions are vacant), child nutrition workers (30 percent vacancy rate), and instructional assistants (15 percent) has resulted in more unpaid overtime for those who remain. 

“This school system is in danger of losing hundreds more amazing professionals,” Lisa Ashworth, an AIG teacher at Green Magnet Elementary School, said Tuesday during the school board meeting.

“At my school alone, we have had four resignations since the beginning of the school year and I’m hearing several discussions of others considering [leaving] before the end of the year. The number one reason for leaving is [lack of] fair compensation.”

Ashworth, along with the N.C. Association of Educators, is demanding a $2,000 bonus for all staff, $17 minimum wage for support staff, and a 6 percent increase to the local supplement for educators and counselors. 

The Wake County school board met one of those demands Tuesday, approving four bonus payments of $1,250 to be paid over the next two years; if the state Department of Education approves the board’s use of this federal COVID money, all school employees will receive $3,750 in three bonus payments next year, plus another $1,250 in 2023, for a total of $5,000 over the next two years. 

The school board also increased pay for substitute teachers, raising it to $104 per day for non-certified employees and $130 per day for certified employees. 

The board has yet to discuss another increase to minimum wage after raising it to $13 per hour earlier this month, but Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore said a presentation on the topic would be made to the board December 7. 

What does the state budget mean for teachers and staff? 

Much of what the Wake County school board can do is determined by the state, which provides base pay to school employees and has been without a real budget since 2018. The three-year impasse ended this week when Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers finally reached a compromise. Cooper, who has said the budget is imperfect but offers much-needed relief, is expected to sign the bill Friday.  

The budget offers a raise to teachers this year that averages 2.5 percent. However, because the raise is based on how many years a teacher has been working, not all will receive that percentage, and some will get much less, said Superintendent Moore. Some experienced teachers have already raised concerns about being left out of salary increases. 

Kristin Beller, president of the Wake County branch of NCAE, asked the school board Tuesday to use federal COVID money to give raises, not bonuses, saying they would do more good. Officials from the state Department of Public Instruction, however, have said they likely wouldn’t be able to approve using federal money that way. Even if they did, Wake County would have to fund the raises once federal money ran out. 

Also included in the state budget is money to supplement the pay of teachers in low-wealth school districts, but Wake County, along with four other counties, is not eligible to receive the funding. School board member Christine Kushner questioned that decision, saying the district is ranked 110th out of 115 in per-pupil state funding.

Later, Kushner criticized the state legislature more harshly, blaming them for the decrease in pay Wake County teachers and staff are currently facing. 

“[Wage compression] is not a sudden development,” Kushner said. “It’s the result of inconsistent pay practices that the legislature has essentially forced on us for the last 10 years.”

Kushner went on to express her support for the Leandro plan and of Superior Court Judge David Lee’s recent order for the state legislature to transfer $1.7 billion to public education in the state’s budget.

“I do hope Judge Lee is able to have some impact,” Kushner said.

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