“Yeah, it’s scary,” said NCCAT Executive Director Richard Thompson.
Proponents of the NCCAT are lobbying lawmakers in an effort to secure funding. Charlotte teacher Donald Nagel has started an online petition in support of the teaching center. Thompson has been in Raleigh talking to “anybody that will listen.”
The director has spent recent days making the rounds, speaking with legislators in the House and Senate, trying to find budgetary refuge with either one or the other before the collective General Assembly hammers out a final version of the state budget.
“We’ve been trying to talk to the members and key individuals to let them know what we do,” he said. “We exchange conversations in the hallway, or in some cases we’ll sit down in the legislative offices.”
The NCCAT has served North Carolina since 1985. An estimated 70,000 teachers have participated in the center’s programs, which strive to provide professional development to the education community throughout the state. The center has 35 employees at its Cullowhee headquarters, as well as another 10 working at its facility in Ocracoke.
“It was created by the legislature,” recalled Thompson. “It cranked up around ’85 at a dormitory at Western Carolina University.”
Thompson originally served as director of the NCCAT from 1992 to 1995.
“So, I’m a recycle,” Thompson said.
The director can remember years when funding was not such an issue. The early 2000s were particularly nice. In 2011, the NCCAT was receiving $6 million in funding from the state — back when the center employed 82 people.
“It’s been up and down, the funding has ebbed and flowed with the state of the economy,” Thompson said. “But the concept, the program, never seemed to be in jeopardy of not being funded.”
But, by last year the teaching center was excluded from the governor’s proposed budget. After wrangling some support in Raleigh, making it into the House’s budget, it did manage to secure $3.1 million.
But the funding was kicked to non-recurring status. That makes for a stressful scene in Cullowhee come the end of a fiscal year.
That’s why Thompson is making the rounds with legislators now, to make NCCAT’s case again for another year of funding. He’s hopeful for a second helping of fiscal salvation.
“In politics, you know, you can’t say it’s all done until the ink on the final signature on the final budget bill has dried,” Thompson said.
The center’s director is finding some support in Raleigh. Among local legislators it appears to be an easy sell.
“It’s a struggle, but it’s important,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.
Queen was instrumental in securing funding when the NCCAT was shafted in McCrory’s budget last year. He said he’s optimistic about the center’s chances this year and is aiming to get it back on a recurring status.
“I wrote the bill last year to put it in the budget on the House side and we got it in on the House side,” Queen said. “I feel better about it this time than I did last time. It’s not a drop-kick by any means, but I feel better about it this time than last time. I’m getting better vibes.”
In the Senate, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is moving NCCAT’s ball up the field — and he may have already found the end zone. The senator is feeling good — “Right now, cautiously optimistic” — and is confident that the center will have a home in the Senate’s budget.
“It appears to be in the Senate budget. It appears we’ve saved it,” Davis said. “It’ll be non-recurring money. It’ll be in there, but it might be on life support, but that’s better than not being in there at all.”
That’s the day Davis dreads. He suspects that if the Cullowhee teaching center is ever left wanting once the final budget is drawn up, it’ll be gone for good.
“I’m really fearful that once it goes away it’ll be very hard to get it back,” Davis said.
That fear is also real for Thompson. He’d hate to see the funding go away, because he’d hate to see the teaching center go away.
“We create teachers with dignity and respect,” Thompson said. “That’s really important.”
That’s part of the pitch the director’s been giving in Raleigh. Trying to find funds to save NCCAT, an institution he sees as vital for North Carolina teachers.
“I still get excited about it,” Thompson said. “I’ve seen what it does. I’ve see people that come there that are ready to quit. Then they become excited and energized and stay.”
What is NCCAT?
The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching is intended to be a place of learning and professional development for the state’s teachers.
“We want them to learn how to become learners again,” said NCCAT Executive Director Richard Thompson.
The teaching center is based in Cullowhee, with another facility in Ocracoke. Each year, more than a thousand educators participate in the center’s programs.
This year, the teaching center has focused on four areas: early grades literacy, digital learning, beginning teacher support and teacher leadership. The focus on early grades literacy is connected to the state’s Read to Achieve Act, a 2012 law that holds students back in the third grade if they are not reading on grade level.
Thompson said that programs at the center are designed to engage and inspire teachers.
“We design our program where they have to participate,” the director said. “We don’t over Power Point them.”
Thompson also cited communication as important. He stressed that ample opportunity was provided for teachers at the center to talk shop.
“They have time to talk to each other,” Thompson said, describing common-area scenes of teachers excited about their profession. “You’ll find them in there, after midnight, talking with each other about teaching.”
Last year, NCCAT was not included in Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget. The center ended up securing funding before the budgetary process was over, but in a non-recurring capacity.
That means the teaching center is left wandering again at the end of the current fiscal cycle. Either legislators will find the money for the center during the General Assembly’s short session, or NCCAT will close up shop at the end of June.