By Ann Doss Helms

Almost one in 10 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers have left their jobs this school year, a rising number that district officials say appears to be partly driven by frustration with low pay.

As of April 9, 858 CMS teachers had resigned, retired or otherwise left the district. That's 9.6 percent of 8,907 teachers, the highest number and percent in the past five years.

The number of teachers changing careers, leaving to teach in another state or citing pay as a factor in resignation rose to 251, compared with 159 during the same stretch of time last school year and 73 in 2009-10. CMS officials say those categories are most likely to indicate issues connected with low teacher pay.

Even in better economic times, when North Carolina's pay was close to the national average, CMS has struggled with higher-than-average turnover. Last year's 16 percent rate was a 10-year high, but the level peaked at almost 22 percent in 2000-01.

After five years of pay freezes, North Carolina has slipped to 46th on average teacher pay, trailing all neighboring states. And tales of CMS teachers seeking higher wages are proliferating.

At a Thursday budget discussion, 24-year-old Cameron Campbell, a second-year teacher at Quail Hollow Middle School, told Superintendent Heath Morrison he shares a house with two other young teachers because none can afford the rent alone.

Both his roommates have accepted higher-paying teaching jobs, one in California and one in Spartanburg, S.C., which offered about $15,000 more, he said.

Morrison says it's the latter situation -- losing good teachers to better-paying jobs just across the state line -- that really chafes him. He told Campbell that a principal recently asked Morrison to help persuade a star teacher not to take a job in Rock Hill at a $7,000 raise.

"The person actually stayed," Morrison said, "but I felt bad."

'Pay is the biggest thing'

Justin Ashley, a McAlpine Elementary teacher who won N.C. teacher of the year honors in history and social studies last year, started this school year trying to win over state lawmakers. A letter he wrote to House Speaker Thom Tillis describing his hopes and passion for the profession went viral, and Ashley initially saw the situation as a chance for his kids to learn about the power of persuasion.

Nine months later, Ashley is applying for teaching jobs in Rock Hill and Lancaster. He and his wife, who works in the Ballantyne area, are considering a second child. Ashley says he could earn about $46,000 across the state line, compared with about $39,500 in CMS. And he says he became disillusioned by lack of serious response from lawmakers.

"For me personally, pay is the biggest thing, but it's not the only one," said Ashley, a seventh-year teacher. "I just feel like the whole culture of education is changing in North Carolina and it's time for me to make a move."

The Observer requested the mid-year tally from CMS after Wake County school officials held a news conference last month to announce a steep increase in teacher resignations -- from 433 last year to 612 during the same stretch this year. Wake, which said in its news release it has "just under 9,000 teachers," is larger than CMS but generally has lower teacher turnover.

"While these figures are alarming, they are not surprising," Wake Human Resources Assistant Superintendent Doug Thilman said. "Given the flat pay scale over the past few years, the recent legislated removal of both career status and higher pay for teachers with graduate degrees, increased teacher turnover has been expected."

Wake's news conference came as school boards and county commissioners across North Carolina are preparing 2014-15 budgets. The N.C. General Assembly convenes Wednesday, and teacher pay is expected to be one of the major topics as legislators update the two-year budget approved last summer.

Morrison and Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill were among the crowd gathered at N.C. A&T University on Wednesday to support Gov. Pat McCrory's announcement of a plan to provide raises and revamp the teacher pay system.

Can't afford Charlotte rents

Teasing out the role of pay in individual decisions can be tricky. The state requires districts to report turnover by a number of categories. Those considered outside a district's control, such as family relocation and retirement, always make up a big portion of departures. Categories such as "dissatisfaction with teaching" could reflect pay or other issues.

CMS reports that a small but growing number of teachers specifically cite pay when they quit, though it's not one of the state categories. That number grew from nine in 2009-10 to 27 this year.

An additional 131 have left for jobs outside education this year, compared with 56 in 2009-10.

The biggest jump was in CMS teachers resigning to teach in another state: 93 so far this year. That compares with eight in 2009-10 and 27 last year.

Campbell agrees that pay isn't the only factor in job changes. He told Morrison his roommates didn't feel like their principals tried hard enough to talk them into staying.

On the other hand, Campbell said afterward, Quail Hollow Principal Rachael Neill makes it clear she values him. He'd love to keep working at the south Charlotte school. But he has student loans to pay off and can't afford rent in the area.

Campbell says he recently applied for two higher-paying jobs: one at a college and one at a Virginia charter school. "It does come down to pay," he said, "but I know I at least have a place to go where people want me."

Lobbying state legislators

The lack of raises for N.C. teachers during the past five years has sent its average slipping down the national ranks. Last year's overall average ($45,737) and average for starting teachers ($30,778) was well below that of South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, often viewed as main competitors for educators.

Morrison has proposed a 2014-15 budget that seeks almost $27 million from Mecklenburg County commissioners to give all CMS employees at least a 3 percent raise. The school board will vote on that plan Tuesday, with commissioners scheduled to vote in June. At Wednesday's meeting of Mecklenburg commissioners, hundreds of educators and their supporters packed the meeting to urge support for higher pay.

Morrison and CMS board members say they're also lobbying state legislators for teacher raises. Morrison said he's visiting Raleigh at least weekly and making numerous calls to legislators.

"I joke with my board members that they can get me an apartment in Raleigh, and I'll drop in on Charlotte," he said.

(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer