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Dr. Richard Thompson is breathing a bit easier this semester. He’s not worrying about funding. Not wondering if the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching will slip into the abyss. 

fr nccatThe North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching is sweating out the legislative short session. Gov. Pat McCrory didn’t include any funding for the Cullowhee-based center in his proposed budget, and unless legislators carve out a place in the final budget, the center will close June 30. 

fr nccatThe North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Jackson County had its funding slashed in half in 2011, and this year, Raleigh may finish the job.

Dianne Lee is one of the lucky ones — an experienced and talented stained-glass artist, she has a ready-made job to replace at least some of the income she earns at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.

This month, NCCAT Director Elaine Franklin was forced to notify 50 percent of the teaching center’s workforce they were losing their jobs because of state budget cuts. That translates to about 30 fulltime jobs in Jackson County, plus another five to 10 at the center’s campus in Ocracoke. The annual salaries of the laid-off workers ranged from the lower end of $20,000 up to $80,000, Franklin said.

Lee was one of the victims. She has worked at NCCAT for 18 of the institution’s 25 years, helping with programs and running NCCAT’s Alumni Weekends. NCCAT provides training and development for teachers around the state, keeping them inspired and, in turn, more likely to stay in the profession.

“I’m going to make lemon out of lemonade,” said Lee, who in a lengthy phone interview sounded more worried about her colleagues’ employment prospects than her own. “I am losing sleep over them — some are scared to death.”

And, in fact, it’s not going to be easy in this harsh economic climate for the NCCAT workers to replace those state salaries and benefits. They are more likely, experts say, to join the ranks of the growing underemployed in North Carolina.


How WNC’s recession unfolded

“This thing has come in waves,” said Victor Moore of OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, a nonprofit based in Asheville that offers consumer credit advice for North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.

Moore said the first wave of help seekers to come to OnTrack when the recession hit were people who basically had engaged in bad loans and were defaulting at the first hint of economic trouble. Then, the construction and building industry faltered, and threw many in the region out of work. The land speculators were next — plans to “flip” properties and make quick profits were no longer viable options, and some people with second homes were also soon in trouble.

Now, to an extent, come the underemployed, Moore said. These might be workers who find a lower paying job, but can’t bank on 40 hours a week and aren’t working up to their earning potential.

Lee, for instance, won’t necessarily start showing up in the official monthly unemployment rate, because she will be operating her business, the Stained Glass Bungalow in Waynesville.

The unemployment rate decreased in just under half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in May, which state officials attributed to a rise in seasonal employment. The state rate was 9.7 percent for that month. Jackson stood at 8.8 percent, Haywood 9 percent, Macon 9.9 percent and Swain 11.1 percent unemployment.

But those numbers fail to take into account the underemployed, a demographic Lee and her laid-off colleagues who are lucky enough to find work are likely to fit — people in WNC who lose one level of job and pay, and are forced to accept a lower level job for less pay and, often, fewer hours.

“Because they are not just going to go out and find comparable employment right now,” said Amy Grimes, director of The Community Table, a soup kitchen in Sylva. “Or, the jobs they can get pay them less than collecting unemployment, which was based on the job lost.”

A recent survey at The Community Table showed an increase in the number of people seeking help who are college educated, Grimes said.

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the unemployment numbers don’t truly reveal the extent of the problem.

“They don’t include the people who have given up on the system,” Clasby said, adding that he worries about what’s coming down the pike for North Carolina.

The state budget problems might continue to compound, he said, leading to even more job losses in the local and state governmental sectors.

“It could be an even bigger problem next year,” Clasby said.


It’s all in the numbers

Franklin, head of NCCAT, gets emotional when she talks about having to lay off about half of the 82-member staff, which followed a budget cut by the state General Assembly from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

This wasn’t about performance issues, this was about money, said Franklin.

“We’re losing good people,” Franklin said, apologizing for tearing up during the interview. “We also told them we hoped to be getting funding through grants and contracts — I hope to hire them back if we can.”

Lee said she has no bitter feelings toward NCCAT or Franklin, she just regrets losing a job she loved so much. Franklin, Lee said, did what she had to do following such drastic budget cuts.

“NCCAT is the only organization in the nation who does this sort of work for (state) teachers,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me.”

Lee has just two years left before she could draw full retirement benefits from the state, and she said there is a possibility that she’ll move to get the necessary time in with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

There are jobs openings to be found locally, but they pay $8.50 to $9 or so an hour, said Ann Howell, branch manager in Sylva for the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Howell went last week to NCCAT to talk with the people being laid-off.

“I try to be positive,” the 26-year agency veteran said. “You’ve got to be positive — new doors open everyday. Right now, in these times, perhaps it’s not the brightest doors, but there are some jobs out there.”

The N.C. JobConnector is a new state service that’s proving helpful, she said. It uses an automated system that matches job orders and job seekers based on job-order requirements and job-seekers’ experiences. People are alerted by email to possible employment opportunities — kind of like for employers and prospective employees.

Dale West, a regional manager for the Employment Security Commission based in Macon County, said she is stunned by the impact the construction drop-off had to Western North Carolina’s overall economy, and that the waves are continuing to roll in.

“I knew the construction trade was a major force in our economy, but I’m not sure I understood how big a force it was,” she said.

The jobs lost did not come in one fell swoop, West said, but in a continuous trickle from such tangential businesses as building supply companies.

“A few from lots of different places,” she said.

West also pointed out that many of the people who work in construction or related trades can’t draw unemployment because they worked as sub-contractors, and their bosses did not have to file unemployment taxes as a result.

A state teacher-training center based in Cullowhee has slashed half its workforce in the fallout of a nearly 50-percent budget cut by the General Assembly.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

The 25-year institution, which is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development, had 82 full and part-time workers. Thirteen of those are based at NCCAT’s smaller campus in Ocracoke. The final stay-or-leave numbers for that campus are still in flux.

But in Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated. Additionally, three workers opted to go from fulltime positions to three-quarter time positions, and eight vacant positions are not being filled. Total, including Ocracoke, 35 to 40 positions are being eliminated.

Linda Suggs, chair of NCCAT’s board of trustees, said in a news release that NCCAT will be reorganizing and shifting resources to best serve the teachers and schools of North Carolina.

“This is an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves while remaining true to our vision of advancing teaching as an art and a profession,” Suggs said at a recent joint meeting of the NCCAT Board of Trustees and the Development Foundation of NCCAT. “We can still impact a large number of teachers with this budget.”

Elaine Franklin, executive director of NCCAT, said a budget cut of this magnitude made a reduction in the size of the organization unavoidable. The organization hopes to raise more in private funds and grants to help offset the losses. NCCAT’s new model will be characterized by a move toward greater diversity in terms of programming content, sources of funding and use of resources, she said.

“During this fiscal year, we will be transitioning to a new model for delivering NCCAT’s mission,” Franklin said.

By reducing the number of week-long residential seminars, where teachers from around the state travel to NCCAT to participate, the center will bring training directly to schools to provide a greater degree of outreach, Franklin said.

“Our goal is to maintain NCCAT’s reputation for high-quality professional development programs and services,” Suggs said, “but to do so in a way that is fiscally sound and supported by educational policy in the twenty-first century.”

— By Quintin Ellison

The General Assembly’s budget would cut funding for a professional development center for teachers in Cullowhee by nearly half what it was allocated last year, slashing the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

Leaders at NCCAT stopped short of declaring that such a sizeable cut would force them to shutdown. But they do say that without additional funding, the 25-year-old institution will have to severely cut back on services. NCCAT and its 82 full-time and part-time employees, to a large degree, will have to transform, and quickly, to survive into the future.

A likely short-lived reprieve came with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto this week of the Republican-crafted $19.7-billion budget. Perdue’s proposed budget had called for only a 10-percent cut to NCCAT and the elimination of eight positions.

On the heels of ever-dwindling state backing the past few years, even Perdue’s proposed cuts would have been difficult to absorb, said NCCAT Executive Director Elaine Franklin. She left her job at Western Carolina University in April to oversee this neighboring institution.

Since July 2008 and not including this current fiscal year, NCCAT has seen its funding cut $1,886,821 by the state.

Perdue is unlikely to win her budget battle with the Republican-controlled legislature over the budge. NCCAT could join the ranks of casualties brought on by diminished state funding, with little time to plan or make requisite program changes. Franklin said that would severely damage NCCAT, and disregard the 25-year investment into it that the state’s taxpayers have made.


‘Vitally important,’ or boondoggle?

Supporters tout NCCAT’s ability to help keep thousands of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the state’s classrooms. Envisioned and pushed through by then Gov. Jim Hunt in 1985, at its height about 5,000 teachers a year came to either Cullowhee or to its smaller sister campus in Ocracoke for seminars and programs. The number in the past few years has been closer to 2,800 teachers, a cutback that is the visible result of dwindling funds.

The programs are interdisciplinary, targeting the environmental and biological sciences, technology, humanities, arts, communication and health.

The teachers who attend NCCAT are transformed professionally and seem visibly reenergized about teaching in the state’s classrooms, said Regina Ash, director of instruction for Swain County Schools.

“NCCAT is important to our teachers, and because of that, I think it is vitally important to our students,” said Ash this week. Her duties include overseeing professional development for Swain County’s educators.

Ash said one of the most critical services NCCAT provides is helping to underscore that teachers are important, and to give them visible evidence that others value them as professionals. The seminars are free, and NCCAT (via state dollars) has even paid for substitute teachers to take over during teachers’ absences.

That type of spending, however, goes to the crux of the criticism NCCAT has attracted in such lean economic times as these. And so does the very appearance of NCCAT, a stunning facility that features state-of-the art equipment and such perks as a small fitness center. On the walls hangs a large modern art collection — never mind that it’s on permanent loan, and cost nary a taxpayer penny; “boondoggle” is the word some have used. Staff at NCCAT still feel the sting of an article published in 2009 by the right-leaning Carolina Journal, a Raleigh-based publication targeting North Carolina’s political scene. Headlined “Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny,” the reporter noted:

“… the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort. And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”


Fighting for NCCAT

Given the harshness of NCCAT’s detractors, the names of some of its supporters might just surprise you. Numbered in the institution’s fan base? That fiscal conservative, no-apologies-for-it, newly elected Republican member of the state legislature, Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin.

Davis recently toured the NCCAT facility in Cullowhee. He heard and believes the pitch staff there make: that an investment in NCCAT is an investment in the state’s teachers, and one that pays off big for the children of North Carolina.

NCCAT reports a 96.9 percent average annual retention rate for teachers who participate in the professional development it offers. This compares to 87.9 percent statewide and 83.2 percent nationally from 2004 through 2007.

But hard times result in hard choices, Davis said while back in his home district this past weekend and in Sylva to attend the new library grand opening. NCCAT was lucky to get even $3.1 million, said Davis, who voted for the budget that cut NCCAT’s funding.

“It was a fight,” Davis said, adding that he believes anybody who actually takes the time, as he did, to “go out there and see it, and find out what they really do” will come away “convinced it is a good program.”

So what does the future hold for NCCAT? That’s difficult to say right now, because planning in these uncertain times is practically impossible, said Tina Wilson, director of business services.

“How can we plan?” Executive Director Franklin asked rhetorically.

One simply does the best one can, added Peter Julius, an NCCAT center fellow who helps design programs, and a former Swain County teacher. Programs are usually planned out six months ahead; Julius is simply warning people that everything hinges on the final state budget.

Franklin believes NCCAT, if it can claw up from that $3.1 million in state funding, can still survive and prosper.

“We do fully realize that this is a difficult budget for North Carolina,” she said. “(But an additional infusion of dollars) would give us the time to do better planning, strategic planning.”

And transform the institution into what must become NCCAT’s future, she said: an organization that relies on private fundraising to pay portions of the bills. Franklin said she has no doubts that NCCAT supporters will open their billfolds and wallets to ensure the institution stays afloat.

But NCCAT must, she said, have a bit of wiggle room to make that transition.

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