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Editorial: No room for bonuses?

For schools, the proposed Rowan County budget for 2008-09 holds an unspoken message: no increase in teacher bonuses. The message is not carved in stone; budget talks are just beginning. But people who want to give the Rowan-Salisbury School System an edge in recruiting and retaining teachers may need a miracle to squeeze bigger bonuses from the county this year.
Start praying.
A poll on the Salisbury Post’s Web site found respondents overwhelmingly in favor of increasing local teacher bonuses $500 by a vote of 768 to 46. The survey is unscientific; the respondents may all be teachers. But local schools have lost teachers to surrounding systems that offer bigger bonuses for years. Support for boosting Rowan’s bonuses to a more competitive level is near-universal. However, if you asked people whether they would be willing to pay higher taxes to give teachers bigger bonuses, the reaction would be less enthusiastic. Hard-core supporters would say yes, but many more would say no ó not because they have anything against teachers, but because their wallets are empty. Times are tight.
The $130 million budget commissioners received from the county’s financial director, Leslie Heidrick, is fairly lean. It keeps the property tax rate where it is ó at 59.5 cents per $100 ó and estimates revenue from other sources conservatively. Considering Freightliner’s layoff of 1,500 workers and the ripples going through the local economy, a steady tax rate makes sense.
So far, the county budget allocates $1.7 million in new money to the schools, enough to cover inflation in current programs and add the Early College program at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Increasing local supplements by $500 would cost an additional $772,290, according to Rita Foil, the schools’ spokesperson.
County employees get 4.1 percent raises in the proposed budget ó a lot more than many people in the private sector, probably. Gov. Mike Easley has recommended that state employees get 1.5 percent cost-of-living raises and a $1,000 bonus. For teachers, he recommends 7 percent raises that some people are expecting to actually wind up around 5 percent.
The bonus issue is not so much about giving teachers raises as it is about improving Rowan-Salisbury’s ability to compete for skilled teachers. The only hope for doing that this year is for commissioners to cobble together $772,290 in savings from other areas of the budget, or for the school system to find the money somewhere in its spreadsheets. Unfortunately, guidelines for spending the more than $100 million the system gets from the state are strict. The bonuses have to come from local money. If teachers would be willing to give up the supply money commissioners allocate to them, that would be $375,000 ó not quite halfway there. But that would be taking money out of teachers’ one pocket only to put it in another, which does not sound like progress.
Still, it’s too early to give up. Rowan-Salisbury has attracted state attention for its need to improve test scores. Teachers are a big part of the solution. County and school officials should make every effort to offer bonuses that help attract the best.

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