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This coastal school system has the highest average teacher salary in NC. Here’s why

May 28, 2019

In North Carolina, the average teacher salary is $53,975, according to the state education department. But which of the state’s 115 school systems has the highest average teacher pay? It’s not the big-city districts in Wake County or Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, as you might expect. Teachers making the most money, on average, work in the Outer Banks, along the sand and surf in coastal Dare County Schools.

That statistic was revealed when the state superintendent released a new North Carolina School Finances website, which shows average teacher salaries at every school system in the state.

WRAL News requested the salary data and ranked it, which showed that Dare County Schools has the top spot with an average teacher salary of $59,223 this school year. Swain County Schools, on the opposite side of the state, has the lowest average teacher pay at $47,554.

How did a smaller school district like Dare County, with its 11 schools, nearly 400 teachers and 5,000 students, top the average teacher pay ranking? It’s not because the county pays more than others. Dare pays its teachers an average of $4,189 extra a year, above what the state provides for teacher salaries. But 20 other counties pay more, including Wake County, which pays the highest average teacher supplement in the state at $8,720. Six counties do not provide any extra pay.

The reason Dare County’s average teacher salary is higher than all other school systems is due to the types of teachers it employs and how long they stay.

“We do have a high percentage of people with national board teaching certifications, master’s degrees and people who have got higher years of experience,” said Keith Parker, Dare County Schools’ digital communications and middle school director.

The average Dare County teacher has 15.5 years of experience. More than 64 percent of the district’s teachers have been in the classroom at least 10 years, and 35 percent have advanced degrees, according to Alexis Schauss, director of school business for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Dare County Schools also enjoys low teacher turnover, one of the lowest in the state, meaning teachers who go there tend to stay. Last school year, Dare County lost 24 of its 382 teachers, or 6.3 percent. The state average was 8.1 percent, and some school systems lost as much as 20 to 30 percent of their teachers.

Teachers tend to stay in Dare County, according to Parker, because of the perks and community support.

“The reason for that is the district has invested a lot of resources and time into teacher appreciation, incentives for teachers, valuing teachers,” Parker said. “We’re very thankful that our community puts a very high value on the teaching profession.”

Among the perks, Dare County Schools has two teacher housing units in Kill Devil Hills and Cape Hatteras to help newly hired teachers get settled. They can apply to live in a two-bedroom unit for $850 a month on a temporary basis.

“It’s a way for them to be able to get to the Outer Banks and not have to worry about expensive housing initially,” Parker said. “That has been a big recruitment tool for us. It’s helped us get some really good teachers in here.”

The district also has a BOSS (Businesses Offering Schools Support) Program, which gives each teacher a card with discounts – up to 20 to 30 percent – at more than 200 local businesses, including restaurants, gyms, retail, child care, pet care, automotive and financial services.

Dare County has something else that entices teachers, according to Parker – full-time nurses and school resource officers in all 11 schools, a rarity in North Carolina. Fewer than half of North Carolina’s school systems – 46 of 115 – meet the ratio of one school nurse for every 750 students, as recommended by the National Association of School Nurses and State Board of Education.

“There’s a lot of things we’ve done to put resources in the schools so it can help teachers do their job, which is to teach kids,” Parker said. “We are extremely appreciative of our county commissioners.... They are extremely generous in their funding of the schools.”

A new report released by the Public School Forum of North Carolina found that average teacher salaries in more than 80 percent of North Carolina’s school districts fall below the reported statewide average of $53,975.

“Our analysis finds that the state average teacher salary reported by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction includes calculations that inflate the state ‘average,’ which results in a misrepresentation of what teachers actually earn in most districts,” Lauren Fox, senior director of policy for the Public School Forum, said in a statement. “We also find that the reported statewide average includes an average local salary supplement figure that obscures the substantial differences in local salary supplements from one district to another, resulting in large disparities in average teacher pay depending on location.”

The group’s new report, “North Carolina’s ‘Average’ Teacher Pay Myth,” found that the gap between the average pay for teachers in the highest paying system (Dare County Schools -$59,223) and lowest paying (Swain County Schools - $47,554) in North Carolina is more than $10,000.

Average teacher salary varies widely from district to district due to inequities in local salary supplements that are funded through local property taxes, meaning the lowest paid teachers are typically found in the districts with the highest poverty rates, according to the group. The calculation used to determine the statewide average teacher salary reported by DPI includes bonuses and other funds that many teachers don’t receive.

“The state’s reported ‘average’ teacher salary is clearly inflated by the significant supplemental pay provided to teachers by local governments and districts that have the wealth to do so,” Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum, said in a statement. “It’s one reason why the reported average pay leaves so many teachers scratching their heads and looking at their own paycheck because in reality in most school districts teachers earn less than the average.”

Alexis Schauss, director of school business for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, has been in charge of calculating North Carolina’s average teacher salary since 2002. In a previous interview with WRAL News, she explained her process.

“On this average teacher compensation number, you can certainly argue against it in certain numbers, but what I do stand by is that we calculate it consistently from year to year,” Schauss said. “So when you’re looking at the trends and the changes, it is a comparable number, at least back to 2002, because that’s when I started. We pretty much haven’t made any changes.”

Each month, the state education agency collects payroll data for every traditional public school teacher in the state. Their pay is then audited to make sure each teacher is paid according to their license and years of experience and to make sure they have the appropriate licensure.

To determine the average salary each year, Schauss uses December payroll data because “the population is fairly stable” that month. The salary data is then downloaded into a mainframe program, which calculates the average. Since teachers are paid in a variety of ways, she breaks down the compensation into 12 categories.

Average teacher salary is a much-debated topic each year, especially how it compares with other states. North Carolina is currently ranked 29th in the nation in teacher pay. While average teacher pay rankings are one way to compare North Carolina to the rest of the country, education leaders say those numbers don’t tell the whole story because average teacher pay does not take into account the experience level of teachers in different states.​

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