LUMBERTON — Robeson County Board of Education members and administrators agree the county needs to increase the salary supplements it offers teachers to attract the best and brightest.
But they are uncertain on how that can be achieved.
“We’re facing a critical need to increase our teacher supplements if we are to be competitive with other counties in attracting and retaining the best teachers,” said Brian Freeman, who joined the board last month. “Teachers are not paid enough by the state, so supplements can be a good way to recruit and retain teachers.”
Although a Robeson County resident, Freeman said he chose five years ago to leave his position in the Robeson County school system and become a teacher in Cumberland County because there he could double his supplement.
“Supplements are a good morale booster,” Freeman said. “They create excitement and let teachers know they are appreciated.”
According to the school district’s finance officer, Erica Setzer, Robeson teachers currently receive an annual 5 percent supplement, with half paid in November and the other half paid in June. Supplements are funded with money provided by the state to school districts located in low-wealth counties that do not have the ability to generate revenue to support public schools at the state average level.
As an example, Setzer said that a first-year teacher making $35,000, if employed for the entire year, would receive a total supplement of $1,750 — $875 would be paid in November and $875 in June, she said.
According to the state Department of Public Instruction, average teacher supplements for the 2015-16 school year in Robeson and some nearby counties were: Robeson, $2,349, 1,635 teacher positions; Cumberland, $3,523, 3,080 teacher positions; Hoke, $2,706, 552 teacher positions; Columbus, $2,123, 421 teacher positions; and Bladen, $1,806, 345 teacher positions.
Teacher supplements vary across the state. Wake County offers the highest teacher supplement, with an average of $6,975, while seven North Carolina school systems offer no teacher supplements, according to DPI. The average teacher supplement across the state is $3,870.
Craig Lowry, who began his first term on the school board last month, said that while teachers definitely need to receive higher supplements, money to achieve that goal should not come from state or federal funds made available to help support student instructional programs.
Lowry, who has held a number of administrative positions over his 30-year career with the Public Schools of Robeson County, suggested that local county funds be used to increase teacher supplements. He said that the commissioners should allocate enough extra funds so that all of the district’s more than 1,600 teachers could get an increase in their supplements of at least 1 or 2 percent.
“An increase of 1 or 2 percent would at least be a start,” Lowry said. “An increase of that much shouldn’t have a large effect on the total county budget.”
Lowry emphasized, however, that the increase in local funds can’t be just a one-year fix.
“This funding would need to be sustained year after year,” Lowry said. “We don’t want to see money for supplements taken from student instructional programs … . This increase in supplements would help our teachers and show that we are interested in them and want to keep them in our district.”
Thomas Benson III, the newly hired assistant superintendent of Human Resources, is counting on his experience as a principal at Westover High School in Fayetteville in helping to address the teacher shortage facing Robeson County as the new school year begins Aug. 29.
He recently told The Robesonian that there were 50 teacher vacancies that need to be filled. At the same time last year, he said, there were 78 vacancies.
“One thing is important,” Benson said. “We have to come up in our supplements if we are at least going to entice teachers to come to Robeson County and stay here.”
Benson said that in addition to financial supplements, attention should be given to offering teachers other incentives.
“Some districts offer help with such things as housing, and some vendors and companies in a community offer teachers reduced cost for their services,” he said. “For example, teachers may get a break in the cost of their cable.”
In addition to its 5 percent salary supplement, Robeson County offers a Mentor Support Program, pays for licensure fees and $1,000 of tuition reimbursement a year.
At a recent meeting with the school board, Dee Grissett, president of the Robeson Association of Educators, pledged her organization’s support for the need to increase teacher supplements.
“I would just like to speak on behalf of not only our RAE members, but all teachers, about a supplement increase,” Grissett said. “RAE supports that. We know our teacher vacancy is high in this county and we believe that increasing our supplement would help us recruit teachers.”
Freeman, who was president of the Robeson Association of Educators about 16 years ago when Robeson teachers received their last salary supplement increase, said he will continue to be an advocate for increased salary supplements.
“We’ve got to find the money,” Freeman said. “We (board members) all need to be committed to finding a way to make this happen. If we focus on our teachers, our students will achieve.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.