Teacher training center fighting for survivalWritten 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.