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Opinion Attack on ‘grabbing’ teachers misinformed and misleading

In the April 8th edition of The Franklin Press, Vic Drummond charged both the Press itself, as well as the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), as co-conspirators in some nefarious plot to misinform the public as to North Carolina teacher salaries relative to those in the other 49 states.

Time for class Mr. Drummond.

You profess befuddlement at our contention that we have suffered an $1,800 a year cut and state that it just can’t be. Consider the changes in our health care plan — one of those benefits you believe to be understated. Take a look at Senate Bill 265 which at the time of the first Press article had passed both houses of the NC General Assembly.

That bill, impacting all NC state employees health care plans called for the following increases: (1) a new premium on individuals going from what was $0 a year to $252. (2) An increase in annual premiums on the family health plan of $960. (3) An increase in annual deductibles of $133. (4) An increase in co-insurance maximums (sure to kick in with one one-night stay in a hospital) of $523.

Those four areas of increase total $1,868. Do they, taken together, constitute a pay cut? I guess you could call them a user fee, or a sickness tax ... all we know is that the health care costs for us and our families are skyrocketing while our pay is frozen in place. Those numbers don’t include other “user fees” contained in SB 265 — increases in prescription co-pays, doctor visit co-pays, and so on. These numbers don't include the fact that our premiums for dependents shot up nine percent just two years ago before the current increases of 10.4 percent ... at least the first time our salaries weren’t frozen.

The figure of $1,868 of increased health care costs doesn’t include the impact of the frozen salaries. Yes, Mr. Drummond, we go “up the ladder” like we always have — we just don’t get paid for it anymore. With 15 years in service to public education with only a Bachelor’s and no National Board Certification like so many of my colleagues, I should have made $40,690 this year before taxes and payment into my retirement plan. But I didn’t. I’m still receiving what I made in 2008 - 2009 -- $39,670. So I lost $510 last year, will lose $1,020 this year, and will lose $1,550 next year when my step should be $41,220 instead of remaining at $39,670. Again, I don’t know if you call those amounts “cuts” or what — we call them “breachs of implicit contract” at lunch.

In 1995-1996, North Carolina rolled out its ABCs of Public Education, one of many reform movements based on high-stakes standardized tests which eventually evolved into No Child Left Behind. The carrot in the ABCs for the teachers (other than the pleasure of being bullied out of the profession) were potential annual bonuses of $750 and $1,500. At Franklin High School we hit the big one at least once and we then tended to hit growth targets netting the smaller bonus every other year. Now mind you, that’s not $750 net, but after paying taxes and retirement we were left with about $480. Three years ago we hit the smaller target ... and got half that amount from the state as we entered into recessionary darkness. And even though we still work as hard as we did since 1996 and hit the targets with the same frequency and level, the bonuses have disappeared.

Do the disappearing bonuses constitute cuts? Do the current proposals to do away with longevity pay, increased pay for Master’s degrees and National Board Certification, to do away with the salary schedule all together and start from scratch — will those be considered cuts by Mr. Drummond and his ilk? We feel like Charlie Brown, horizontal in the air, four feet off the ground, knowing that gravity will do its work, while the state plays all too well the role of Lucy taking away the promised football, sporting a Machiavellian grin. And you think we’re making all this up? Do you truly believe, with all of this, that we are in the business, in your words, “to promote the premise that N.C. teachers are underpaid, in an attempt to grab more money from taxpayers for teacher salaries?”

Mr. Drummond states that he “believes national rankings based on average teacher salaries are dubious.” And while, he believes that — reviewing and accepting a straightforward, apples to apples, state by state comparison of average teacher salaries doesn’t support his narrative, a narrative which maintains North Carolina teachers are overpaid and “grabbing” for more. Let’s take a look at his claims and numbers closely.

Mr. Drummond states that NEA/NCAE national comparisons don’t include “retirement and healthcare plans, supplemental retirement plans, sick leave, vacations, bonuses, supplemental pay, days worked, and educational reimbursements.” There are several reasons that neither the NEA nor any credible comparison includes those variables, but they basically boil down to either that those particular “benefits” can’t be accurately tabulated and thus fairly compared from state to state and/or the “benefits” aren't benefits or aren't current benefits.

One certainly cannot perform the analysis at the level of precision required to delineate fully-loaded salary and benefit packages for the purposes of relative comparison. That is, unless one wants to use the John Locke Foundation method where providing statistical analysis and solid evidentiary data used to generate that analysis is optional.

How would Mr. Drummond have us calculate the health care plan as a benefit, especially as our out-of-pocket costs are going through the roof? Certainly it is a benefit and is worth something, but as the co-pays, premiums, and everything else are demanding we pay more out of our pockets, then certainly this benefit is worth substantially less than a few years ago. The specific amount less depends upon the individual, and as this is in a constant flux from person to person, state to state, plan to plan, no one can get anything approaching an accurate fix on the relative value of these benefits. One certainly cannot perform the analysis at the level of precision required to delineate fully-loaded salary and benefit packages for the purposes of relative comparison. That is, unless one wants to use the John Locke Foundation method where providing statistical analysis and solid evidentiary data used to generate that analysis is optional.

Our retirement plans are not current benefits — those benefits exist in the future, if we work that long, if we live that long. That’s 12 more years as it stands for me, as I can then retire with full benefits at age 60 with 27 years of service. And where did the money in that fund come from? As it stands now, it all comes from our own paychecks, our own salaries. Does Mr. Drummond seriously claim monies deducted from our own paychecks to be held in retirement accounts are to be considered benefits in addition to our salaries? The state will indeed make a significant contribution to our contributions if we provide 25 - 30 years of service, but in any event that is a future benefit and is difficult to compare in real time, not unless you want to play John Locke Foundation games with the data.

Supplemental retirement plans are entirely funded by the individual teacher who elects to enroll — no match and no state benefit. Sick leave is about the same from state to state; it has no monetary benefit in North Carolina but can be applied as days worked — perhaps a teacher can retire after 29 years instead of 30. Vacations — there aren’t any paid vacations — we work when the county tells us to work our 200 or so days. This coming year, our work year (not days actually worked) will be a week longer; summer will shrink from a little over 56 days to 44 this summer. Is that a cut? Summers, by the way, are frequently used for mandated professional development or to work a necessary second job — is that a benefit?

I have no idea how Mr. Drummond construes “educational reimbursements” as benefits. We all pay for our graduate studies out of our own pockets. And even if there was a reimbursement, there would be a corresponding expense — where’s the benefit? I invite Mr. Drummond to actually take the time to talk to a classroom teacher and ask him or her about the purchase of classroom supplies which we pay for out of our own pockets which aren’t reimbursed.

Mr. Drummond bemoans that the NEA/NCAE teacher salary comparisons don’t take into account cost of living, age of teachers, and level of experience. Blending in cost of living data into average salaries on a state-wide basis and then comparing those figures to other states is a fool’s errand at best. What is the cost of living in New York? Answer: it depends on where one lives in New York — median prices of single family homes in 2005 were 12 times higher in Westchester County than they were in Allegany County. We understand this dynamic quite well in Macon County. We had the second highest cost of living in NC in 1994 (the last year of published data I could find) out of 100 counties and even within one county, the cost of living varies dramatically from a house in Highlands to a modest apartment in Franklin. Because the cost of living numbers are difficult to get at to begin with, because of their tremendous fluctuation within a state, because they make straightforward comparisons impossible, NEA/NCAE doesn’t use them in their salary comparisons. For the same reason, in addition to the ones stated above, we don’t include benefits, as they fluctuate wildly from district to district within states, as they are often negotiated at local levels. Organizations, such as the John Locke Foundation, include these stab-in-the-dark figures for their own purposes to arrive upon “adjusted average compensation” figures with the laughable conclusion that North Carolina teachers are paid $4,000 more than the national average. In our dreams, Mr. Drummond.

Finally, Mr. Drummond charges NCAE with duping the public and The Franklin Press by withholding data which he believes contradicts our position that we are currently 45th in average teacher salary by pointing to information from our parent association indicating that we are all the way at position #28 rather than at #45. The only problem with this argument is that the data underlying the position #45 analysis is the most recent available coming from the fall of 2010, which looks at the salaries for the 2010-2011 school year. The data from the NEA chart Mr. Drummond cites is clearly marked as coming from 2008 - 2009 — two-year old data! — the John Locke Foundation three card monte switcheroo once again.

So are we saying that we fell from 28th to 45th in only two years? Yep. That’s what happens when North Carolina freezes salaries and other states like South Carolina increase pay. Salaries going down, health care costs skyrocketing, bonuses gone, supplemental pay on the chopping block, and we’re accused of “grabbing.” The accusation is as disgusting as it is ludicrous.

Unfortunately, Mr Drummond’s inaccurate claims and my necessarily lengthy reply cloud the main issue — in general, teachers aren’t particularly well paid. In North Carolina, we were getting close to the national average, but Raleigh’s commitment to us and our students has waned and then gone off the cliff with GOP majority control in both houses. As I write this, the budget bill which just passed the NC House has another 20,000 K-12 jobs on the chopping block.



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