By Richard Sullins |

How long can you kick a can down the road?

At first, you might think it could be done indefinitely. As long as the circumstances don’t change – your leg holds its strength, the can maintains its integrity, and the road keeps going on – maybe you can keep on kicking that can for quite a long time.

But eventually, there comes a point where things change and kicking the can is no longer possible.

The federal government is perhaps the most famous can-kicker of all time. Neither of today’s political parties wants to deal with the federal debt ceiling, for example, so they set a date a few months down the road to revisit the issue. And when that date arrives, the can gets kicked again. And again.

Local governments can be can-kickers, too. And if you watch Lee County politics closely this June, there’s a very good chance that you’ll see the Lee County Board of Commissioners kick a $1.6 million can all the way into 2023. And it probably won’t be the last time.

Setting the stage

Maybe you remember the major point of contention between the Lee County Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners during budget season last spring: the school board asked the commissioners to fund increases in local supplements for teachers and staff. For too many years, teachers had been forced to pay for classroom supplies from their own pockets and other systems up the road were offering more money. Raising the supplement would help keep them working here in the communities where they live and pay taxes.

The commissioners refused, choosing instead to cut property taxes by a penny and a half on every $100 of land valuation.

A replay of that same contest appears to be coming. But this year, the stakes are going to be bigger than last time. Why? Because this is an election year.

The commissioners met in late January of this year to set goals for the coming fiscal year that begins on July 1, and there was unanimous agreement among them that, if it were possible, they wanted to see another round of property tax cuts. No target number was mentioned, but some in political circles are asking for a reduction as high as five cents per $100 in property valuation. And cutting taxes has always been a winning political issue, regardless of party.

As the commissioners consider their options in setting the tax rate, they will also receive another request from the Lee County Board of Education within the next two weeks to increase the local supplements provided to teachers and staff. While teacher salaries are funded by the state, these local supplements are extra dollars paid by counties as a means of showing support for teachers, but more importantly to retain and prevent them from fleeing to nearby counties that offer bigger supplements.

Why? Simply put, it’s a matter of economics. Counties to the north of Lee – think Wake, Chatham, Durham, and Orange – have had the same problem of keeping good teachers that Lee County has experienced. As higher wealth counties, they can afford to pay higher supplements. And with four-lane highways that make travel between any two points possible within a matter of minutes, the temptation for Lee County teachers to go to where the pay is bigger has never been greater.

Here’s why the problem is far bigger than you may think.

Two years ago, during the 2019-20 school year, most of it occurring before the arrival of COVID in March 2020, 94 certified employees left their jobs in the Lee County Schools district and another 16 retired. “Certified” employees are those who hold a license of any sort – teachers, counselors, administrators, and such.

In a bit of an anomaly, the 2020-21 year saw 82 resignations and another 16 retirements. In the current year, 2021-22, 98 certified employees have resigned so far, and 18 others have retired. And the year isn’t over yet.

There is also another dynamic at work. Across the country, in the 10 years before the arrival of the pandemic, the number of people completing a teacher education program dropped by nearly a third. A long list of things contributed to that, from low pay and little support in their communities to school shootings and new laws that prescribed what could and could not be taught.

In summary, 274 certified employees have left in the last three years. Another 50 have chosen to retire. Lee County Schools invests a lot of time and effort in finding and hiring the best teachers, and in providing them with the training and skills to make them successful in the classroom. Keeping them there is one of the highest priorities for Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan.

In a statement to The Rant, Bryan outlined the School Board’s plan.

“Our top priority is to retain and attract the very best individuals to teach and work in our school district,” he said. “In the current economic environment, we continue to experience intense competition with school districts in some surrounding counties to the north that offer higher local supplements.”

“This competition has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the continued trend that more individuals are not entering the education profession, impacting the number of candidates for certified and classified positions.”

“For that reason, the Board of Education is requesting a current expense increase of $1,660,967 to raise the local supplement from 10 to 12 percent for certified staff and 4 to 6 percent for classified staff. The goal is to retain and attract educators who will provide an outstanding education for our students.”

At its meeting on May 10, the school board is expected to approve a draft budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022-23, which will include the additional $1.6 million to provide the 2 percent increases in local supplements, including the retirement benefits and Social Security required to be paid with them. By law, the board’s budget request must be submitted to the commissioners by May 15, making it the final piece that commissioners will need to assemble its spending and tax plans for the county for Fiscal Year 2022-23.

The proposal sets up a difficult choice for Republicans, who must successfully defend three seats on the board in the November election to retain control. Last year, the four Republican commissioners voted as a block against granting local supplements to teachers and staff, while the three Democrats voted in favor of them. Instead, the commissioners gave the School Board $387,000 to use as it saw fit. While helpful, it was still less than one-fourth of what was needed to fund the supplements.

Support for teachers has always been strong, particularly during an election year. And voting against a pay increase for those teachers, especially when the county has the money to do so in its fund balance account, could be a gamble for the Republican seats that are up for re-election this November.

But at the same time, there is also an undercurrent among conservatives for a significant property tax cut. The county’s current tax rate is 76 cents per $100 of property valuation, down from the 2020-21 rate of 77.5 cents. And county commissioners – even those not up for re-election this year – were unanimous back in January when they instructed County Manager Dr. John Crumpton to come back to them in June with the biggest tax cut that he could recommend.

So last fall, after failing to win support for increasing the supplements from the commission, Dr. Bryan and the district’s Finance staff began work on an alternate way to fund the increases. Three months after the county’s budget was adopted in late June, Bryan and his staff reported to the school board that they had been able to identify dollars that could be used within the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds that were part of the several COVID relief bills passed by Congress.

After verifying that those dollars could, in fact, be used to provide the supplements as an allowable expense under federal regulations, each of the 1,200 Lee County Schools employees received bonuses before the holiday season arrived. For some, it was the first supplement increase they’d ever received, and for coaches who worked with for decades with the district’s athletes, it was the first increase they had received in 21 years.

The stakes are raised

If the school board, as expected, again requests the county to fund teacher supplements, the commissioners will be faced with a literal Sophie’s choice: they could either reduce property taxes by the up-to-five cents that some are calling for and not provide funding for the supplements once again, or they could choose to fund the increases to keep the best of Lee County’s teachers working in its schools and perhaps settle for a smaller tax cut.

Lee County Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack isn’t shy about sharing what he thinks should be done.

Speaking at the April 5 meeting of the Board of Education, Womack said that the budget the school board will present to the commissioners is “dead on arrival.”

“Surely you know it has little chance for passage,” he said at the time. “And surely you know that it looks purely political for you to position the proposed supplement increases under the increased funding request you are sending to the commissioners.”

Womack’s belief is that “this budget is a political document (that is) intended to say that we will fund all of those things, those other things that we think are needed, out of the discretionary funding that we get from the state, from the federal government, and from the COVID money that we got – $35 million. We will try to make it look like the commissioners are the bad guys for not increasing the supplements.”

While popular, increasing compensation for teachers has only recently become an issue that has gained any sort of political traction. For years, low pay and supplements have perpetuated a revolving door that kept teachers coming and going through the classroom, often forced to pay for classroom materials from their own pockets because of a lack of sufficient government funding.

It was just seven months ago, in November 2021, that the state’s budget finally included a 5 percent raise for teachers over the next two years and a $2,800 one-time bonus from federal dollars for “most teachers.” But that federal and state support didn’t carry any weight with the majority of Lee County’s Commissioners.

Just before last year’s budget vote, The Rant obtained an email sent by Republican County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith to the other members of the board saying that Lee County teachers were already receiving an above-the-state average supplement and that what he termed their “mediocre performance” did not merit an increase of any sort. The April 23, 2021, email says that the county “provide(s) an average supplement of $4,585 when the state average is $2,842.”

The State Department of Public Instruction provides publicly available information on local teacher supplements, and it suggests that the commission’s decision not to raise the supplements could potentially put Lee County Schools at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding counties for attracting the best talent. Although Moore and Harnett counties provide supplements less than Lee County, they have been making up ground in recent years. According to DPI’s latest figures, Chatham County’s average teacher supplement is $6,481, Orange County is $6,522, Durham County is $7,487, and Wake County is $8,569.

The choice facing the board of commissioners comes at a critical time as many teachers across the country seem increasingly closer to burnout and leaving the profession after two years of providing instruction and support in the midst of a pandemic, something that none of them could have been prepared for. This sort of exhaustion has been perhaps toughest on young teachers who are still early in their careers. In Lee County, half of its approximately 1,200 employees are at risk, having four or fewer years’ total experience working with students.

Recent national studies of teacher burnout have produced distressing results. One that was conducted by the RAND Corporation found that 78 percent of teachers who were surveyed reported frequent job-related stress during the 2020-2021 school year, compared to just 40 percent of other working adults. Perhaps of even greater concern is another finding in the study that 27 percent of teachers reported symptoms of depression last year, compared to 10 percent of other adults. Studies by the Brookings Institute and others have yielded similar outcomes.

A third option

At this point, it seems a safe bet to say that this fiscal year’s budget scenario will be a repeat of last year’s. County commissioners appear poised to choose once again not to fund the $1.6 million in local supplement funds requested by Lee County Schools for the coming year, given their search for large property tax cuts.

The school board has spent about half of the $35 million in federal COVID relief funding that it has been allocated through several funding packages passed by Congress. Perhaps it could dip into those reserves once more this year and maybe even again the following year to pay for the supplements. But perhaps not. Dr. Bryan said at a recent meeting that funds were being held in reserve in case of another COVID wave that might strike over the next two years.

There is another option, though, one suggested by Democratic school board member Patrick Kelly at its March 21 meeting, which would combine a smaller tax cut with fully funding the teacher supplement request.

“I don’t think anybody on this board, or in the public, would mind seeing their taxes decreased, and I just have a gut feeling that our county commissioners are going to do either four pennies down to one penny,” he said. “And I’d like to put this out on the record that if our board and their board can come to a compromise, where we would get our increase and they would lower taxes by one penny or two pennies and we would get a 1 or 2 percent increase, that I think that would be a job well done on both boards.”

But Womack is in no mood for compromise.

“I was very disturbed to hear a couple of you express the sentiment at your (March 21) meeting that the Lee County taxpayers ought to forgo a healthy tax cut and give our staff a supplement increase … speaking for most Lee County taxpayers, I can assure you they are wanting a big tax break this year, not political posturing from this board.”

End game

There comes a day of reckoning for all things and kicking this can down the road will end in 2024. We know that because that’s when all federal COVID funds expire, and any expenditures from them must be completed before the year is out. In that same year, which is coincidentally the next presidential election year, the county will have to make some hard decisions.

Without any more federal money to come to its rescue, will the county decide to demonstrate the value of its teachers by picking up the costs of their supplements? Or as economic growth brings more money into county coffers and makes property tax cuts more viable, will the desire to keep on lowering them lead to a cap on the amount that commissioners are willing to spend on county services, sending a clear message to its teachers that they are free to go where the grass is greener?

We’ll find out soon.