Increases would bring some relief to Beaufort County teachers

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Imagine for a moment that you are fresh out of university, with a bachelor’s degree in hand, and that you are certified to be a school teacher. Growing up, you loved family vacations in the Lowcountry. Now that you hear that Beaufort County is looking for teachers, you apply.

You don’t expect to get a rich education. Yet you want a career that will enhance the lives of your students, challenge you professionally, and support a comfortable, albeit modest, lifestyle in a beautiful location. No more dorm life or sharing an off-campus apartment. Now finally you can get your own place.

The truth is, you probably can’t, unless you also take a part-time job or have a roommate. Increasingly, beginning teachers as well as experienced teachers are realizing that they cannot afford Beaufort County.

The situation will improve if Beaufort County Council approves the school district‘s 2022-23 budget. He is asking for increases that would give teachers a better chance of meeting their expenses.

Beaufort County’s high cost of living is a significant barrier to teacher recruitment and retention, and it’s troubling news for parents because fewer teachers mean more kids in classrooms.

With fewer graduates choosing teaching careers, schools around the world are grappling with teacher shortages. Beaufort County’s high cost of living, exacerbated by spiraling inflation, makes hiring and retaining teachers more daunting. Currently, the school district has dozens of vacancies just 11 weeks before school starts.

I reviewed data from nine reputable sources, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the US Census Bureau, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Tax Policy Center, the SC Department of Education, and the CoStar Group, a company based in Washington which analyzes real estate trends.

Here is some of what the data shows:

• Since 2020, rents in Beaufort County have increased 31.1%, faster than any other county in SC, according to CoStar.

• The average annual rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Beaufort County is $13,782 — the third highest in the state after Charleston and Berkeley counties. It consumes about 42% of a beginning teacher’s net salary.

• The first year salary for beginning teachers in Beaufort County is $42,928. At the end of the year, the teacher will be about $47 in the hole, after paying income taxes, typical living expenses, and a required $3,400 contribution to the state pension system.

• Things can get worse. By the end of 2022, CoStar projects that residential rents in the United States will increase by 6%. In Beaufort County, that would mean the rent for a one-bedroom apartment would drop from $826 to $14,608 a year, consuming about 45% of take-home pay.

• Inflation has driven up the cost of living so rapidly that a survey by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning had to be updated mid-year to reflect rising prices.

The financial situation becomes clearer for teachers with higher degrees and more experience. But typically, teachers leave for other professions after a few years, so school districts rely heavily on new graduates to fill positions.

It should be noted that the cost of living estimates I used from MIT’s Living Wage Calculator allow no frills: no pre-prepared meals, restaurants, movies or concerts or savings. Indeed, the first-year salary for a beginning teacher in Beaufort County is only 4.8% higher than what MIT calls a “minimum living wage.”

Skepticism about some of these numbers is understandable. After all, shouldn’t someone making $42,298 a year be able to get by pretty easily? Many people make do with even less. But the data I looked at, particularly on rental rates, was fairly consistent, and I ruled out outliers.

Over the next few weeks, the county council will consider the school district’s 2022-23 budget, which, if approved, would bring some relief to teachers. The base salary for recruits would increase from $42,928 to $48,066, with corresponding increases for teachers with more experience and advanced college degrees.

Seems like a big bump, but after tax deductions and other required levies—contributing to the state pension system alone would cost about $4,100 upfront—leaving the teacher with about $35,713 $. At the end of the year, after paying rent and other living expenses, a frugal teacher would have about $3,100 in savings or unexpected expenses. The cushion would shrink to $2,277 if rents increase 6%, as CoStar predicts.

Raising teachers’ salaries would require modest increases in property taxes for owners of second homes and for businesses, but not for residents who live in and own their homes. A second home owner would pay $60 more per year for a home valued at $250,000; $96 more for one valued at $400,000. County council members – sensitive to the hardship already caused by inflation – may be reluctant to impose higher taxes on businesses, which will pass them on to customers.

But council members need to remember that most residents — those who are eligible to vote — pay no property taxes to run our schools — nothing — thanks to a short-term change in state tax laws in 2006. If our taxes are so high, why are so many new residents settling here?

The board began its review of the school district’s budget May 23 and will revisit it June 13-27. Both meetings will be held at 6:00 p.m. in the council room at 100, chemin Ribaut in Beaufort.

Please attend and make your voice heard.

Fitz McAden, former editor of The Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette, is married to a teacher recruiter for the Beaufort County School District.

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