How will Chatham County find and pay for resources for new schools?

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Chatham Park officials estimate that the largest mixed-use development in the state will generate 6,051 additional students in Chatham County. For context, Chatham County Schools currently serves 8,840 students. 

More students, naturally, means more teachers. This thought wasn’t lost on William Rosenfeld, a self-described elderly professional who has “been very interested in education quality and funding for many decades.”

With that in mind, Rosenfeld asked Our Chatham to report on how CCS will “find (and pay for) teachers?” with the Chatham Park development.

Much of the growth is still a while down the line, with no CCS in Chatham Park actively under construction or even formally announced. But the need for future schools is undeniable, as long as plans hold for Chatham Park to generate an additional 60,000 residents for Chatham County in the next 40 years.

With Rosenfeld’s question in mind, Our Chatham reached out to CCS about its plans for future hiring, sought the opinions of others involved with education in North Carolina for their thoughts and asked a Chatham Park representative whether or not he’s concerned about the need for teachers. Here’s what we learned.

Finding teachers is tough now – and could be harder in the future

It’s hard for CCS to put a number on how many teachers it will eventually need to hire as a result of Chatham Park because it will depend on how many students the development produces.

“When it comes to hiring, teaching positions are based on the number of students we have,” CCS Public Relations Coordinator John McCann wrote in an email. “Obviously, we have no students from the Chatham Park community at this point, and Chatham Grove Elementary School has not opened.”

Chatham Grove, unrelated to Chatham Park, is one of two future CCS schools currently under construction, and is slated to open by the 2020-21 school year.

But regardless of what the number works out to be, CCS is expected to need to fill far more teaching positions than it currently has. This current school year (2018-19), CCS has 624 teachers for its 8,840 students, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. That breaks down to one teacher per every 14.17 students.

If the estimated figure of an additional 6,051 students generated from Chatham Park is accurate, that increase alone would call for 427 new teachers should the current teacher-to-student ratio be kept.

Hiring that many teachers may be difficult because of the state of the teaching profession in North Carolina.

According to Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, there are currently 1,500 vacant teaching positions in North Carolina. He said the state is seeing fewer people enter the profession, which doesn’t bode well moving forward.

Jewell cited pay as a deterrent to potential teachers. In March, WRAL reported that new estimates from the National Education Association place North Carolina 29th nationally in average teacher salary for the 2018-19 school year at $53,975, up from 37th in 2017-18.

However, that amount is still considerably below $60,462, the national average, and Jewell expressed frustration over the State General Assembly’s decision in 2013 to eliminate salary increases for teachers with master’s degrees and the lack of raises for experienced teachers. In 2017, North Carolina legislators passed a budget that eliminated state health care for retired state employees hired after January 2021.

“We do still have a teacher shortage crisis, and you know we talk about continuing growth because our state still is growing in population,” Jewell said. “It seems as though, ‘How are you going to fill these positions,’ right?”

Jewell said hiring teachers can be difficult in rural areas. That’s where Chatham County comes into play.

“You’re talking about having to drive a while or looking for places to live, so that’s a drawback,” said Chatham County Board of Education Chairman Gary Leonhard.

Chuck Smith, a representative for Preston Development Company – the firm behind Chatham Park – wrote in an email that Chatham Park “does not have any concerns about whether there will be an adequate number of school teachers coming to Chatham County in the future.”

“Chatham County is becoming part of the Triangle,” Smith said. “While there may be other areas of the state where it will be more difficult to attract teachers, the urban centers are attracting more people than ever and the teachers choosing to work in our state are more likely to locate in the urban areas.”

Smith did acknowledge that the current lack of one- and two-bedroom apartments in Chatham County is an impediment to attracting beginning teachers but thinks Chatham Park will remedy this.

“As Chatham Park grows it will provide more housing choices and lifestyle choices than presently exist today in Chatham County making a teaching job in this area more attractive than it has ever been,” Smith wrote.

The Chatham Park website states that starting prices for houses in the initial residential sections of the development will be in the $250,000-400,000 range. Smith did not respond to a follow-up question on the expected price for one- and two-bedroom apartments in Chatham Park by time of publication.

According to Census data, the median household income in Chatham County is $59,684, 18.6% higher than the state average ($50,320). It also costs less to make ends meet in Chatham County than it does in some neighboring counties. According to the United Way of North Carolina’s “Our Money Needs Calculator,” a one-adult household must have an annual income of $23,455 to make ends meet, a smaller amount than Orange ($25,464), Wake ($25,287) and Durham ($24,373).

Compared to other school districts in rural areas, CCS does have the advantage of being located close to the Triangle, McCann said.

“It will remain important for us to help prospective teachers understand that while Chatham County Schools is in a rural area, our employees are able to access the amenities associated with larger cities in relatively short drives,” McCann said. “As well, our employees have lauded our school system for having a support structure that makes for good working conditions.”

If CCS struggles to attract traditional teachers, Jewell said alternatives including Teach For America and lateral entry might have to be explored.

Ultimately, local funding at the county level might be a determining factor, which is where the payment part of Rosenfeld’s question comes into play.

Local supplements play a big role in teacher hiring

In North Carolina, teaching positions are funded by the state based on average daily membership. The ratio varies from grade to grade – the state funds one kindergarten teaching position for every 16 students and one 10th-12th grade position for every 29 students – but the general idea is that the more students you have, the more teaching positions will be funded.

However, it’s up to local districts to secure adequate funding from their local counties to supplement state salaries for teachers. According to Jewell, there’s “bidding wars” being waged by districts throughout North Carolina to entice potential hires.

In CCS’ case, Chatham County has played an important role in funding the district and, consequently, contributing to its local supplement.

During a presentation at a Chatham County Board of Education meeting on March 11, CCS Chief Finance Officer Tony Messer presented information on the proposed 2019-20 district budget. He said 35% of the district’s funding comes from local sources, and that CCS ranks sixth out of 116 districts in North Carolina in per-pupil county funding ($3,510). Overall, CCS ranks 43rd in total funding per pupil.

“If we weren’t sixth in county funding, just imagine where our ranking would be,” Messer said.

In his presentation, Messer said the district is requesting a local current expense increase of $1,540,000, partially due to an emphasis on employee compensation.

This school year, Leonhard said, CCS changed its local supplement scale for teachers from set to sliding. Beginning teachers now receive a 12% local supplement, and more experienced teachers receive a 14% supplement.

According to data from the DPI, the average teacher supplement in CCS for the 2017-18 school year was $5,057, which ranked seventh in the state. However, neighboring districts Wake (No. 1, $8,649), Chapel Hill-Carrboro City (No. 2, $7,904), Durham (No. 4, $6931) and Orange (No. 5, $6,274) each ranked higher.

The presence of those nearby districts just above CCS in average teacher supplement speaks to the difficulty CCS might have moving forward in attracting teachers. Chatham County has certainly pulled its weight in funding CCS, but that trend will have to continue moving forward.

The toughest part, Leonard said, is getting new teachers in the door.

“Our county commissioners have been wonderful to work with,” Leonhard said. “I honestly believe once we get people here, they want to stay.” 

@Brennan_Doherty

Have more questions about how growth will affect schools in Chatham County? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!

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