LUMBERTON — The educators who attended a public forum on education were small in number, but vocal in their frustration, saying they have to do more with less, and claiming that millions of education dollars were cut from the state’s budget.
About 35 teachers and school staff protested the loss of master’s pay, stagnant wages and other education issues at Robeson Community College on Thursday. The forum was held by the Robeson Association of Educators.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s education adviser Eric Guckian, along with state Reps. Marvin Lucas, Rick Glazier, Ken Waddell, Garland Pierce and Ken Goodman and state Sen. Michael Walters, all Democrats, listened to teachers’ concerns and promised to do better for North Carolina education.
“[Education] is not a political football, it’s a bipartisan opportunity,” Glazier said. “There’s no more important institution.”
Jamie Burney, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Fairmont Middle School, said his paycheck will be $54 lower each month because of a tax increase. He added that a friend who teaches tried to apply for food stamps, but made $17 over the maximum income to qualify.
“I’m tired, but I need a second job,” Burney said. “If we were any other profession, we would walk out.”
Monica Graham, a Red Springs Middle School assistant principal, said she has the same salary as an administrator as she did as a teacher.
“I moved from 18 years as a teacher to assistant principal and I didn’t get a pay raise,” she said.
Lucas said by not paying teachers what they deserve, the state is disrespecting them.
“It boils down to respect,” Lucas said to a round of applause. “If we respect those who determine the state of education, that is teachers … we’ll pay you and you must get paid and it’s as simple as that.”
Burney, a former North Carolina Teaching Fellow, said it was “disheartening” to hear the Teaching Fellows program was losing its funding.
“It helped prepare me to be what I consider to be a great teacher,” he said.
Sibyl King, a teacher at Rosenwald Elementary School, said she knew why the auditorium was mostly empty seats.
“The reason why [other teachers] are not here is … they’ve given up,” King said. “They don’t care anymore like they did. I spend half my time persuading teachers not to quit.”
Guckian said the elimination of master’s pay, salaries that rank about 48th in the country and other factors could push good teachers to other states.
“If they throw up their hands … and leave the state, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said.
Alford Dudley, who teaches world history at Red Springs High School, said the state is ignoring students and families as much as teachers.
“We have our children out here,” he said. “They’re throwing up in the hallways because they don’t have food. They go home and don’t have computers to work on. Imagine those children as your own children. I beg of you to cross party lines. Work for the needs of the people.”
The effectiveness of charter schools was also discussed during the forum. Graham said charters need to be on the same playing field as public schools.
“If it’s taxpayer money [being used], then expectations need to be on the same plateau,” she said.
Representatives liked the idea of a technology high school in Robeson County, a plan that schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt will present to the county Board of Commissioners soon.
“Not all students were designed to go to a four-year college and get a white-collar job,” said Walters, who was an agricultural education major at N.C. State University. “We need to give them a chance to be successful.”
Waddell, who taught agricultural education for more than 30 years, said a technology school would be an asset to the county. The cost, however, which is expected to exceed $40 million, could be a deal-breaker.
“We do need those job skills out there,” he said. “We need a citizenry that’s ready to go to work. Having that skill ready for employers is really important.”
Graham told the representatives that they should “spend a day in the classroom” and help teachers do their job to better understand what they go through every day.
“Trade in your tie for a couple of polos,” she said.
Goodman said teachers should vote out the lawmakers who willingly made cuts to education.
“Help us help you … because we’re in the minority,” he said.
Pierce said he will do everything he can to help teachers do their jobs and students succeed in school.
“I’m going to work hard for you,” he said. “Education needs to be the No. 1 priority in North Carolina.”
Republican leaders in the General Assembly deny education funding was cut, saying there is $400 million more for education this year than last year. They say they are taking different approaches to education, including lifting the cap on charter schools and rewarding teachers not through tenure by through merit.