07/24/07 — Wayne County schools watching education legislation

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Wayne County schools watching education legislation

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 24, 2007 1:45 PM

With about 10 percent of the 1,277 teachers working in Wayne County Public Schools coming from the ranks of the retired, officials are anxiously awaiting the outcome of a bill currently being hashed out between state Senate and House negotiators.

"The schools of education are not producing enough teachers to fill the schools," said Marvin McCoy, county school assistant superintendent for human resource services. "So the retirees provide a tremendous support, and we need that to continue.

"They are an active part of the force, and they bring a lot of experience to the table."

Under the current system, which was scheduled to end June 30, teachers are allowed to retire and six months later, come back to work at a reduced salary while still keeping their full retirement benefits.

The House voted earlier this session to extend that program in its same form, but under the Senate's proposal, teachers would have been required to be at least 60 years old and have 25 years of experience before returning.

The problem with that, however, McCoy explained, is that teachers who go to work right after graduating college usually are finished with their 30 years by the time they're 52 years old and would be unlikely to return to the profession after eight years away.

"I think education all over North Carolina would lose," he said.

Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said he doesn't think the changes will be approved.

Pate is serving on the conference committee charged with reaching a compromise and said he is confident they eliminated the age requirement Monday. From now on, though, teachers will have to be fully retired -- 30 years of services, 60 years old and 25 years of service or 65 years old and 5 years of service. Those teachers currently working as retirees not meeting those standards will likely be grandfathered in.

The next hurdle, Pate said, is deciding how long a teacher must be out before coming back.

"We're still negotiating the number of days a teacher must be on the retired list before coming back," he said. "The House position is we want to shorten the amount of time from the current six-month period the teachers have to be retired.

"I think we all realize there's a shortage of teachers and this is one way of getting more in the classroom."

He added that he hoped a final agreement could be reached today.

Wayne school officials also are awaiting the results of a bill passed by the House that would change the school capital fund lottery revenue distribution.

"We've not been notified as far as how the lottery is going to impact us, but even if it's less (than expected), it'll be more than we received this year and any additional dollars will be nice," said Ken Derksen, school public information officer.

For fiscal year 2006-07, Wayne County only received about $1.76 million of its projected $2.2 million.

According to Pate, under the new distribution for the current fiscal year, Wayne County is projected to receive about $2.16 million -- about $183,000 less than originally scheduled.

Wayne was scheduled to get $2.34 million.

The original distribution was based on a school system's average daily membership and its low-wealth status. The new distribution, if it passes the Senate, would take into account not only membership and low-wealth, but also growth of a county's student population.

Pate did not vote for the change.

"It'd take a long time to build up any construction funds out of the lottery money anyway, but I could not vote to take a $180,000 some dollars away from our county," he said.

Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, chairman of the House Education Committee, on the other hand, did.

"This will make it more equitable across the state. Initially for Wayne County it's going to look a little funny, but it'll help as you grow," he said. "I think on average it'll probably be more beneficial."

Other education bills still being debated in Raleigh include ones to give school boards taxing authority, raise charter school standards in order to create a de facto cap, address dropout and graduation rates and provide money for school construction.

The taxing authority issue, which is scheduled to be debated in the House Education Committee this week, is something that has long been discussed. But, said Bell, who is the committee chairman, it seems to have a little more momentum this year than in the past -- even though he doesn't think it's a particularly good idea.

"I was a county commissioner for 10 years and one of the most difficult things I had to do was raise property taxes. I've been asking if they're sure they want this, and they say yes," the former Sampson County school superintendent said. "They wouldn't have to depend on the county commissioners to provide money for education, but my personal opinion is that would be too many people taxing."

County school board members, however, expressed an interest in the possibility earlier this year when the bill was introduced.

In terms of dropout and graduation rates, Bell continued, one idea being discussed is tying at least a portion of a school's funding to its graduation rate.

"We're thinking about changing the focus for giving allotments from enrollment, to rewarding schools for the percentage of graduates they have," he said. "We want to reward success."

However, he continued, in order to calculate those graduation rates fairly, the state first needs to determine how exactly it defines a dropout. A study bill on the issue also is currently in the legislative process.

And finally, Bell added, while a much-anticipated school bond referendum is unlikely to be on November's ballot, the issue is not dead.

"There's got to be something done, and I think there's a great possibility (of having one)," he said. "But I think if it's done, it'll be done during the short session (in 2008)."