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Schoolhouse standoff: Macon County teachers sound off to Sen. Davis

fr teachersSen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, faced a group of 50 Macon County teachers and staff last Tuesday in the library of South Macon Elementary School, and it was not a happy crowd. 

“I’m not looking for a fight or a Democrat-Republican debate,” said Angela Phillips, who has taught second grade at Cartoogachaye Elementary School for 22 years. “I’m telling you I’m hurt. We feel totally disrespected.”

The meeting came on the heels of a proposed budget that would give teachers the largest raise, at least in terms of dollar amount, in the state’s history. The Senate’s 2014 budget proposal would boost teacher pay by 11.2 percent, a $468 million increase statewide. Though it remains to be seen how that number will translate into reality — the House unveiled its own plan June 10 that would instead grant an average 5 percent increase — the Senate proposal elicited some strong reactions. 

On the face of it, giving teachers a historically huge raise sounds like a pitch more likely to garner yeas than nays. After all, North Carolina currently ranks 47th out of 50 states for teacher pay. Davis was surprised, he said, by the nearly universally negative reaction he’s gotten for supporting the appropriations bill that includes the pay raise. 

“I am astounded that tenure is so important that we’ve gotten so much backlash, not one email thanking me for a $5,800 average salary increase,” Davis said.  


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Tug-of-war over tenure

Though the teachers agreed that the pay hike would be welcome — in six years, North Carolina teachers haven’t gotten any raise at all save a 1.2 percent increase effective July 2012 — they weren’t happy about the criteria for receiving it or the way the cost would be covered under the Senate version of the bill. Though the House version would not require any trade-off to receive the 5 percent raise proposed under that plan, the Senate plan would require teachers to voluntarily give up tenure in order to receive an 11.2 percent raise. 

Tenure, or career status, makes it harder for teachers to be fired by requiring that the school system prove that a firing is not due to personal, political, religious, arbitrary or capricious reasons. By contrast, non-tenured teachers bear the burden of proof. Unlike the private sector, in which a boss can fire his employees for any reason he deems valid, firing a tenured teacher requires the agreement of the school principal, the district superintendent and the school board and can be done only for certain performance-based reasons. 

From Davis’ point of view, though, tenure simply makes it harder to fire teachers who actually deserve to be let go without offering much protection that good teachers wouldn’t already have. 

“You can’t find more polar opposites than me and you, but I would be a fool to get rid of you because I hear from a lot of sources that you’re a good teacher,” Davis told John DeVille, a history teacher at Franklin High School who organized the meeting.  “Your job performance is your best job security.”

But not in all cases, at least according to multiple other teachers who voiced their opinions at the nearly two-hour-long meeting. 

“If you take away our tenure, you take away that ability to feel like we have a voice, that we can no longer feel like we can be an advocate for children, because every time we open up our mouth we might be liable to have our job taken away from us,” said Mary Price, school counselor at Iola Elementary. “In my opinion, you are not giving the children in North Carolina what they need, which is an advocate when they don’t have one.”

Unanimous applause greeted Price’s comment at the crowded school library. Though the meeting had been scheduled just 24 hours beforehand, after Davis found out the Senate schedule had been altered to allow him to be home in Franklin at that time, at least 50 school employees attended it. 


To fund a raise

Though the Senate’s appropriations bill would offer teachers a pay hike, it wouldn’t furnish the education budget with the hundreds of millions of dollars required to supply them. Rather, the money would come from other places in the education budget.

“Part of the money would come from [reducing teachers assistants],” Davis said on his way back to Raleigh. “Part of the money would be new revenue and part of the money would come from reducing administrative costs.”

Statewide, the Senate version would cause North Carolina schools to lose 7,400 teachers assistant positions. The House version, meanwhile, would keep those positions intact and rely partially on increased lottery sales to fund the raises. 

According to Davis, the Senate bill would limit state funding for teachers assistants to kindergarten and first grade classrooms. However, the teachers said, those are already the only places they can be found. 

“Macon County has cut teacher assistants,” said Melissa Faetz, a first grade teacher. “We’re already down to bare bones. We’re already down to K-1.”

So, while the teachers agree they’d like a little more fat in their paychecks, they don’t view the Senate proposal as increasing the monetary value of their work. 

“It looks like, ‘We’re going to give you this raise, but you’re going to work ten times harder because we’re taking away all your school personnel,” said Jennifer Garrett, a nurse in Macon County Schools whose husband is an elementary music teacher.  

Phillips told Davis that she used to have a full-time assistant in her second grade classroom, but now she has one part-time helper for a few hours per week. Recently, she said, she found herself teaching class while clamping a tissue around a child’s bloody nose. One hand on the tissue, she used the other to gesture children up to the board to work their math problems. 

“It’s embarrassing to me to come across as confrontational to you,” Phillips told Davis. “I don’t want to do that.”

“You’re frustrated,” Davis said. 

“I’m frustrated and I’m hurt,” Phillips replied. 

Rexanna Duvall spoke to share her story of a recent call to the plumber to work on the pipes in her home. He and his assistant worked for about an hour and charged $225, a pretty penny considering that, she said, he’s likely several levels of education below her. 

“I’m thinking, ‘I have taught 20 years. I have two college degrees, am a fairly intelligent person, and often I feel like I get lumped in with the parasites who are sucking off the tax dollars,’” Duvall said. “I feel like we are perceived as the slack part of the slackers, the Medicaid/welfare folks who are sucking off the poor innocent taxpayer, rather than we are the poor taxpayer. A lot of us do have to work two jobs.”

To wit, kindergarten teacher Francis Seay had to throw in her two cents on the way out the door, as she was soon due at her second job. 

“We’ve cut paper, we’ve cut copies, we’ve cut everything,” she said. “We’ll go out and buy it and continue to teach.”


Obstacles to instruction 

Davis, whose wife was a public school teacher for years, retiring in the 1980s, mentioned earlier in the discussion that she had taught for all that time without a teacher assistant. Some of those years, he said, were spent in southern California in classrooms full of children learning English as a second language, but she routinely handled classes of 35 solo. 

That’s why he thought teachers assistants seemed like logical positions to trim. However, Phillips contended, the landscape of the classroom has changed since the 1980s. 

“These children that we’re dealing with now are a different socioeconomic level than we had when your wife taught 35 with no assistant,” Phillips said. “It’s challenging. I love it. And I want to continue to do it. But I don’t feel respected or supported at all.”

Increases in divorce, single-parent homes and other disruptions at home have all translated to the classroom, Phillips said, and that makes it harder for teachers. 

“A lot of the problems we’re dealing with in education are societal problems,” Davis agreed in a later interview. However, he said, he doesn’t believe that it’s the school system’s job to address those problems. 

“It’s totally unfair for anybody, including government, to expect society to be able to dump their problems on the schoolhouse doors and for the school to fix it,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen. We don’t have enough money to do that. We’ll never have enough money to do that. We have to quit enabling people.”

Teachers are also facing pressure from larger class sizes and increased testing requirements, the meeting attendees said. 

“I have nine more students in my class this year than I did last year,” said third grade teacher Charlotte Rhoden. “Add to that the Read to Achieve, add to that the parent meetings I’ve had to have with all this. My living room is like this” — Rhoden motioned to waist-height — “with paperwork because I don’t have a teacher assistant.” 

Third grade is the level at which students must pass an end-of-grade reading test or be automatically held back. Students who fail the test go to a mandatory summer school program where they work to catch up, but if that doesn’t work they must repeat the third grade. 

“My job is a comparative walk in the park compared to what third grade teachers have to do,” DeVille said.


Basis for dialogue 

What it comes down to, the teachers said, is what they see as a lack of respect for their profession from Raleigh.

“I think it’s unfair to characterize what the legislature is doing as they don’t respect teachers,” Davis said. The comment was met with laughter, one member of the audience commenting, “Oh, he’s a comedian.” 

“The point everybody is trying to get across is we want you as our senator, a member of our community of Franklin, North Carolina to make decisions and make votes based on how it affects us, how it affects Macon County,” Faetz said.  

However, Davis reminded the teachers, a budget is made of many moving parts, and education is just one of those parts. It’s certainly a large one, accounting for 38 percent of the proposed budget, but there are plenty of other issues in play, too.  

“Some of you are really criticizing me for voting for the budget,” Davis said. “Let me tell you how sausage is made in Raleigh.”

Different committees hear different bills related to different parts of the budget, and inevitably, the final product will contain some parts that each individual legislator agrees with and others with which the same individual disagrees. But somehow, a budget must get passed. 

“If I didn’t find anything in the bill that I wasn’t comfortable with, I’d never vote for anything,” Davis said. 

Davis is on six different standing committees, including two of which he is a co-chairman. Education is not one of those committees, and because the time to make changes to budget bills is while they are in committee, it’s difficult for him to become informed about the issues, take a stand and make something happen while still attending to all of his other responsibilities. Not that it’s impossible. 

“Have we steered you enough to have that conversation?” asked school nurse Mary Tyson. 

“I already have in the past,” Davis replied. 

And, he said, he did the same after the meeting ended and he drove back to Raleigh. 

“I listened and I took their concerns to my fellow legislators,” Davis said. “I just talked to them, especially the ones in the House.” 

Because the House had yet to pass a budget bill, Davis said, discussions there would have more effect on the final outcome. 

The June 3 meeting wrapped up more out of necessity than out of flagging interest in continuing to ask Davis questions, and though it was nearly 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday before it ended, many teachers stayed around, talking to each other and waiting for their one-on-one with Davis. 

All in all, the teachers left with their resentment of the pay plan — and of Davis’ stance on it — in tact, but also with a respect for the Senator’s willingness to meet with them. 

“Kudos to you for showing up,” Faetz said. “I was kind of waiting for you to have some meeting to go off to at the last minute.”

“We talk about you being brave, and we think you are,” Sutton said. “I respect that part of you. I will tell you this though: We’re braver.”

Davis, likewise, left with a willingness to look more deeply into the issue but with his fundamental thoughts about educational priorities unchanged. 

“What I heard in there would cause me to examine my position more and to get more of the facts,” he said, “but my bias remains that a good teacher does not need tenure.”



Tracking the bill 

• May 14: The Appropriations Act of 2014 is filed as Senate Bill 744. The 275-page bill covers all state funding for 2014-15, not just education funding. 

• May 15: S744 passes first reading in the Senate. 

• May 28-30: Amendments are proposed and committee hearings held. 

• May 30: S744 passes second reading. 

• May 31: S744 passes third reading with one additional amendment added. 

• June 2: House passes S744 on first reading. 



A recent history of teacher tenure

• July 2013 S.L. 2013-360 is signed into law. The law includes provisions to discontinue granting tenure to non-tenured teachers and to invalidate tenure for all teachers beginning in 2018. 

• December 2013 The N.C. Association of Educators files a lawsuit against the state, claiming it is illegal to take away tenure from teachers to whom it had already been granted. 

• May 2014 Wake County Superior Court rules that repealing tenure for all teachers is unconstitutional, though the ruling does not protect tenure for teachers who move to another school or job or who have not yet earned it. 

• May 2014 The Senate version of the Appropriations Act of 2014 proposes a historic raise for public school teachers who waive their tenured status. 

• June 2014 The House version of the Appropriations Act of 2014 proposes an average 5 percent raise, which teachers would receive without having to waive their tenured status. Both versions, however, state that no more teachers will be granted tenure after 2013-14. 

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