In an effort to stave off the bus driver strike and keep school employees from quitting in droves, the Wake County Board of Education approved a one-time bonus and small raises for teachers and school support staff Tuesday. 

Full-time employees will see a $1,250 bonus this month, and part-time employees will see a smaller bonus. The board also approved a pay increase to $13 per hour for roughly 1,600 employees and a 1 percent increase to the local supplement the county pays toward teachers and other certified staff including guidance counselors and therapists. 

The extra pay comes after almost two years of employees being overworked due to the coronavirus pandemic. As children returned to school this year, reports emerged of teachers working 60 or 70 hours a week—grading papers after school, lesson-planning on weekends, and acting as substitutes during their free periods for staff who had already resigned.

Tensions came to a head Friday when bus drivers—who had been driving double or triple their usual number of routes without extra pay—called out en masse to demand better working conditions. The informal strike continued today despite the board approving pay raises Tuesday. Although the protest has lost some momentum, about 30 drivers called out sick Wednesday, many saying that the extra pay is not enough, WRAL reported

Superintendent Cathy Moore emphasized these pay increases are just the “first step” in increasing compensation for teachers, but vague promises of better pay in the future are not assuaging employees. The North Carolina Association of Educators held a protest outside the board meeting Tuesday night demanding, at minimum, a $2,000 hazardous pay bonus for all staff, extra pay for extra duties, and raises for all district employees.

Board members seem to agree the steps taken Tuesday are not enough. During the meeting, board member Karen Carter questioned how long employees would be willing to wait for better pay. 

Keeping staff “dangling out there, (saying) ‘Just stay with us,’ is very hard to do,” she said. “Look at other districts that have already made significant changes (staff) can see.”

Carter’s concerns were backed up by a slew of comments from teachers and staff who reiterated that they are overworked, underpaid, and exhausted. Teachers and instructional assistants said they had to regularly fill in as subs to cover vacant positions. Stacy Eleczko, a middle school teacher, said she and her coworkers were waiting on a decision from the board to decide whether or not to resign. 

Carter said she wanted the district to raise pay to at least $15 per hour, so experienced nurses, instructional assistants, and other non-beginning staff would be included in the raise. 

In Wake County, a nursing assistant’s starting salary is $11.11 per hour; for an instructional assistant, it’s $11.80 per hour. Even with the $13 per hour pay increase, those beginning employees would still be making less than the average Raleigh cook or line worker, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bus drivers, who start at $15 per hour, make less than the average Raleigh secretary or fast-food manager. 

Board Chair Keith Sutton said the district wishes they could do more but needs the help of the state to make significant changes to teacher and staff pay. Board member Jim Martin said it was time to play “hardball,” suggesting the district use one-time COVID relief dollars to provide ongoing salary increases and dare the state not to replace the funding when the federal money is gone. Either way, it’s unlikely the state will make a big investment in education, even after COVID-19. After all, legislators are still holding off on meeting their Leandro obligations

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