Featured photo: 401(K) 2012https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Michele Jordan heard from the Winston-Salem schools that she would be getting a raise, she was thrilled.

“When this phone call came in, I thought I could pay off some of my medical bills,” she said in a school board meeting on Jan. 11.

Jordan, a fifth-grade teacher at Brunson Elementary School, has been struggling with cancer on top of the ongoing perils of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the next time she heard from the district was when they called to tell her she would no longer be getting that raise.

Because of a calculation error, it was announced on Jan. 6 that the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools’ budget was missing $16 million dollars. This meant teachers would not be getting their promised raises, which were supposed to increase salaries an average of 2.5 percent according to reporting by WFDD which would have amounted to approximately $3,800 per teacher. First-year, 10-month teachers were also meant to receive $8,200 in local supplements, which would be a permanent addition to their salaries. The raises would have made Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools teacher salaries among the highest in the state for beginning teachers.

Screenshot from the Jan. 11 school board meeting that describes how the miscalculation happened.

In the days since the announcement of the error, the district has vowed to do what they can regarding teacher pay, but the payouts will not be as high as previously promised. Andrea Gillus, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County School’s Chief Finance Officer, closed out the Jan. 11 meeting by presenting the new budget.

Teacher annual supplemental increases will now increase by $1,800, effective immediately. The new supplemental pay will also cover the first half of the school year retroactively. And while the increase is about $2,000 less than the initially proposed amount, it is greater than the annual increase from last year which was $1,285. New teachers will now get $6,400 rather than the initially proposed $8,200.

The new budget will also include Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, also known as ESSER bonuses, holiday bonuses and state-funded bonuses.

Gillus said the funds were off because the board used the wrong formula to calculate the budget. To avoid this in the future, new compensation practices include additional training on how to review for accuracy, putting more staff on reviewing all compensation estimations and calculating all estimates using multiple methods.

“We’re going to look at all of our funding sources and see where we have money,” Gillus said.

At the same school board meeting, dozens of people came to talk about the budgetary error and what more the school board can do to fix it.

While the teacher salaries vary based on experience and other factors, Forsyth County’s current average teacher salary is $41,500 according to Intuit’s 733 income tax records from the previous year. Guilford County’s average salary is $43,500 based on 988 records and the average teacher salary in the United States is $47,500 based on 506,411 records.

Teachers dressed in red filled the school board meeting room on Jan. 11. (screenshot)

Some of teachers mentioned that they had thought about resigning before they were promised a raise, only to have it taken away. Others spoke about colleagues who had planned to refinance their homes and now were not able to, even with the bonuses.

More mentioned that they work two or three jobs to make ends meet or that they had to could not spend time with their own children because of all the hours they worked. Some audience members cried as their coworkers addressed the board.

Nicole Walters, a third-grade teacher at Brunson, said she worried she made a mistake becoming a teacher at all.

“Since year one of teaching here, I’ve been hoping for a change in the way society views teachers,” Walters said at the meeting. After hearing about the initial raise, she said, “I felt appreciated. I felt I could scale back on my second job and spend time with my family and friends.”

Now, she is waiting for the district to make it up to her.

The lack of a substantial raise this year is the most recent of a long line of troubles teachers have dealt with recently. Kristin Kennedy, a high school English teacher at Reynolds High School, has been teaching for eight years and has never seen anything like the mass exodus of teachers happening right now.

At the end of the 2021 school year, the RAND Corporation found that one in four teachers were considering leaving the profession. That number jumped to nearly half among Black teachers. Forsyth County currently has 140 vacant teaching positions, which Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Brent Campbell says could be for a number of reasons, including COVID.

Kennedy and her coworkers have been covering for colleagues now for the last two years. She says that because Reynolds has few teachers and fewer substitutes, she has been stretched thinner than ever before.

“We don’t even feel comfortable staying home if we’re sick because we don’t want our colleagues to have to sub our class,” Kennedy told TCB in an interview. “Now, I only stay out for COVID. I have sick days, and I should be able to use them, but I’m scared to. There’s not enough people in the schools to take care of the kids and there aren’t enough subs to take all the classes. I don’t want to burden my colleagues.”

Lauren Stewart, another teacher at Reynolds, mentioned that things only got worse in the aftermath of the Mount Tabor shooting earlier this year.

“All the people I work with have all stepped up to do more than is contractually obligated,” she said. “To hear we were going to get such a significant raise, I felt like the district cared. Then we got the call, and I cried.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” Stewart continued. “There are months I sit down with my partner and try to figure out how we’re going to make it to the end of the month. It would have been amazing not to have to do that.”

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