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Broken, breaking or blossoming? Macon educators discuss state of public schools

fr forumNorth Carolina education has seen its share of high-profile issues over the last couple of years. Teacher raises, tenure, vouchers, budget calculations and adoption — and then abandonment — of the Common Core State Standards have all made headlines. A roomful of people gathered at last week’s Macon County League of Women Voters’ meeting to hear a panel of Macon County teachers, administrators and teachers address those changes’ effect on the classroom. The question: Is public education reforming or declining? 

It’s been a rough year for Macon County Schools, Superintendent Chris Baldwin said as he addressed the crowd. He cited challenges such as a $228,000 cut in state funding and $175,000 local cost for teacher raises that meant doing away with seven teaching positions and five teaching assistant positions. He expects to lose more teaching assistants next year. But that doesn’t mean the system is broken, Baldwin said. 

“We have our challenges but we are not broken,” he said. “We have caring, dedicated professionals working with our students each and every day.”

He mentioned experiences such as serving on the Teacher of the Year search committee, hearing the ideas and experiences of the county’s top teachers. Compared to an 80 percent graduation rate statewide, Macon County’s rate is 88.2 percent, and the county ranks in the top 25 statewide in SAT scores. Last year, 27 students graduated with both a high school degree and an associate’s degree. 

“The bottom line is we’re graduating more students who are college- and career-ready than ever before,” Baldwin said. “With this in mind I have to ask why are our public schools being portrayed as broken.”


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At the breaking point

But it’s not all hunky-dory, said panelist John deVille, a social studies teacher at Franklin High School and president of the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. The system isn’t broken, deVille said, but it’s at the breaking point. 

“In [fellow panelist Tyler Faetz’s] English department, he has 28 kids per class in a writing class,” deVille said. “The quality of education we were able to provide 10 years ago we are not able to provide.”

Gary Brown, long-time Macon County educator who last week resigned as principal of Iotla Valley Elementary School, threw out a series of figures to prove the point. In 2003-04, Cullasaja Elementary School had one teaching assistant for every 25 children. For 2014-15, that figure is one for every 54 children. Over the same time period, instructional supply dollars in Macon County have declined from $84 to $38 per student, and since 2008-09 textbook funding has gone from $67 to $14 per student. By comparison, the going rate for ebooks is now around $15, while a hard copy high school textbook typically costs between $75 and $125. 

“North Carolina is set up so the local people are supposed to pay for the facilities and the state is supposed to staff it. That’s how it is supposed to be,” Brown said. “I find myself in a position where what is right and will work are two different things.” 

It’s been a 10 years since Macon County has replaced any textbooks, so many classroom have just one set of books. That means that students can’t take them home to study. That’s a situation that surprised Selma Sparks, a volunteer at Macon Middle School, when she first started helping out.

“I said, ‘How can you teach this subject without a child taking a book home to read. What’s going on?’ They said, ‘We don’t have the money.’ I said, ‘How is that even possible?’” Sparks told the panel about her experience in a reading classroom. “One of the teachers was trying to make copies but they were limiting the number of copies she could make.”

Textbooks were a topic of discussion, but a good bit of the back-and-forth centered around teaching assistants, a position that’s been disappearing from North Carolina classrooms over the past several years. 

“Teacher assistants are everything to us,” said Melissa Faetz, a first grade teacher at South Macon Elementary School and Region 8 Teacher of the Year. “They are those eyes and ears, but they’re so much more than that. They are help for students with disabilities. They are help for students who need challenges.”

In a classroom of 25 to 27 first graders, Melissa said, there’s a whole range of abilities and learning styles. She’ll have students with autism, students with ADHD and students who need some additional challenge to stay interested. Having that extra person in the room allows more opportunity for individualized instruction. But this year, Melissa’s classroom will have a teaching assistant for only part of the day. Upper elementary grades have long since been without those positions. 

“I’m a pretty good circus master,” Faetz said. “I can get them interested. But can I reach them?”

The disappearance of teaching assistants is a trend that concerns Stephanie Laseter, a hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service and parent to a rising second grader and a 5-year-old. An Otto native, she and her husband chose to return to Macon County to raise their family largely because of the school system. She feels like staffing cuts will threaten the quality of education in the county, especially in light of conversations she had on a 2012 trip to Finland, a country whose education system is renowned worldwide. 

“I said to those teachers, ‘So what is it? What makes your school so awesome?’ They all told me the same thing first. They have two teachers in every classroom,” Laseter said. “That’s what makes their schools awesome. And that’s awesome. We can all do that.”


Hunting for money

Of course, positions cost money. And the panelists had some ideas for where that money might come from. 

Brown suggested that county commissioners consider a one-cent increase in the county property tax, adding that while he’d rather see the increased funding come from Raleigh, he doesn’t think that will happen. A one-cent increase would cost the taxpayer $100 per year for every $100,000 worth of property. 

“We can’t fix everything, but there’s some things that by golly we have to pay for,” Brown said. “And I’m thinking education’s one of them. 

Tyler Faetz suggested that legislators look to some more upper-level decisions for potential cost savings. In the most recent legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly voted to abandon the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning standards now adopted by all but seven states. North Carolina had adopted the standards in 2010, spending about $76 million on teacher training and materials development. 

“We have walked away from a $76 million investment while at the same time spending $110 million less on teacher assistants for the year,” Tyler Faetz said. “That’s not fiscal responsibility.”

However you slice it, though, it’s important to fix the problem now before its effects spiral, panelists said. That was a sentiment echoed by John Knippel, owner of TekTone Sound & Signaling Manufacturing, Inc. and father of Macon County Schools graduates. Now a grandfather, he worries about how well the schools will serve the next generation — and how much of an attractant they’ll be for the young engineers his business counts on. 

“From a business standpoint, we moved up here and we ended up relocating our entire business up here,” the Florida native said. “Now we have a hard time attracting young engineers, the young professionals that are the backbone of our business.”

To answer the original question, public education is not broken, the panelists said. But it needs some serious maintenance to keep it from meeting that fate. 

“Public education is here to meet the needs of our students,” Melissa Faetz said. “That’s why we’re here. But we can’t meet those needs unless we have the funding to do it.”

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