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More than a number With teacher layoffs, impact of school budget cuts hits home

It’s not an uncommon scene: people rattling a tin can outside Wal-Mart to raise money, whether it’s a cheerleading squad saving up for new uniforms or the Salvation Army bell ringers.

There’s no shortage of good samaritans asking shoppers to ante up for a noble cause here and there, but a group camped out on the Wal-Mart sidewalk in Waynesville last week had a way of stopping people in their tracks.

The Save a Teacher Campaign in Haywood County is aiming to raise enough money to pay the salaries, and thus save the jobs, of the teachers and teacher assistants laid off this summer by Haywood County Schools.

The Haywood County Schools Foundation has already put up enough money from their coffers to save one teacher, and is now challenging the community to save the next one.

“We are looking at this one teacher at a time,” said Steve Brown, the director of the school foundation, a nonprofit that works to support the school system.

Among the donors dipping into their pockets last week was one teacher who herself was laid off.

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“Maybe this can help save someone else’s job since I already lost mine,” said Amy Greene, as she pulled a few dollars from her wallet. Greene ran the computer lab at Junaluska Elementary School. She is five months pregnant and has made the decision to stay home rather than find other work, but she feels bad for those who don’t have that luxury.

“I always thought, ‘You know, if I go into this, I will always have a job because there will always be kids to teach,’” Greene said.

Parents, teachers and former teachers were most likely to pitch in during last week’s fund-drive, including Toni Mullany, a former teacher, who is now a social worker. She sees the positive role teachers play in children’s lives.

“When your home life is chaotic, the one stability you have is your teacher,” Mullany said.

Mullany said it is a shame the state is cutting education, but not surprising.

“Children can’t vote. Their voices aren’t heard,” Mullany said.

Parents, of course, do vote and care, said Cynthia Shuford, the president of the PTO at Bethel Elementary. Teachers are a very important influence in her son’s life, she said.

“He is with the teachers as long or longer than he is with us,” Shuford said.


Uphill battle

Brown hopes the effort will soften the blow of state budget cuts. But given the loss of 32 teaching positions in Haywood County — coming straight out of the classroom — the campaign has its work cut out to make a dent in the problem.

“We need, as a community, to pull together and do what we can to help,” Brown said.

And as schools in North Carolina face budget cuts of historic proportions, they need all the help they can get. The state plans to cut public school funding by $236 million for the coming year. Lawmakers were initially toying with far deeper cuts that would have drastically altered the classroom landscape. Backlash, and firm resistence by Governor Beverly Perdue to pass such a budget, led to a tax increase in lieu of the deeper cuts to schools.

Nonetheless, it’s the worst budget situation that longtime school administrators like John Sanderson, who spent 17 years as the principal of Central Elementary School, can remember.

“We’ve had tight budgets, but never a situation like this at all,” Sanderson says. “This is the toughest in my memory.”

The more severe budget cuts intially on the table would have increased class sizes for K-3. Sanderson was relieved that did not come to fruition.

“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” Sanderson said.

But with possible cutbacks to personnel, making sure there are enough teachers could present its own challenge to school systems.

“Bottom line is, we don’t really have a choice,” said Dan Moore, director of personnel for Macon County Schools. “We’re not going to put 50 kids in an elementary classroom. If there [are] drastic cuts, we’ll have to look elsewhere.”


Last resort

Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, is well aware of just how tough times are. The Haywood system stands to lose $1.2 million under the proposed state budget. Locally, the system has already faced $1 million in cuts.

“We’ve lost over $2 million, and school hasn’t started,” Garrett says.

The Haywood County school system looked to trim costs everywhere possible — supplies, new buildings, staff development — in order to avoid the most dreaded cuts: staff. It didn’t take long to exhaust every option, since salaries make up the biggest expense to the system.

“It’s hard to squeeze your budget with pens and pencils,” says Dan Moore, finance officer for the neighboring Macon County Schools. “It ends up being people.”

Macon will see a net loss of 14 teachers this school year with a state budget cut of $674,000 and a county budget cut of $200,000. Swain will see a net loss of three positions.

For months, school systems have been in limbo waiting for the state budget to be unveiled. Schools have known they’ll be facing big cuts, but haven’t been certain of exactly how much.

“We’ve heard so many different rumors about the amount, and it’s hard to come up with any concrete plan when there are so many rumors being floated around,” said Moore. “We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

The waiting game forced most school system to keep teachers at arms length all summer not knowing if they would have a job come the state of the school year.

In June, Haywood announced it would not renew contracts for 54 teachers. They’ve been able to hire about 40 of those teachers back, however, reducing the number of actual lay-offs. Some teachers were saved when state cuts weren’t as severe as intially thought. Others were able to move into jobs vacated by teachers who were retiring.


What’s lost?

The Haywood school system saw a net loss of 32 positions, 23 of which were teacher’s assistants. The blow is a devastating one, particularly to the elementary grades.

Teacher’s assistants play a critical role, providing much of the housekeeping for a classroom — from helping a child find a missing lunchbox to discipline — thus freeing up teachers to focus on learning.

Teaching a roomful of elementary school students with a spectrum of abilities is a difficult task but is more plausible with the help of an assistant, said Toni Mullany, a former elementary school teacher who lives in Haywood County.

“They can say, ‘Let’s go over here in the corner and see if we can work through this math problem,’” Mullany said.

Cynthia Shuford, whose son is going into the second grade, couldn’t imagine his classroom without a teacher’s assistant.

“It would just be too much. Their learning would go down,” said Shuford, the president of the PTO at Bethel Elementary School.

Not all teacher’s assistants serve in a traditional classroom setting. Many work in special settings with children with disabilities or chronic discipline problems, and those who need extra help learning. Rena White, now a fifth grade teacher at Clyde Elementary School, served as a teacher’s assistant for years in a class for special needs students. She did everything from emptying catheters for students in wheelchairs to doing physical therapy.

Donnie and Joyce Bryson, the parents of a special needs student in Haywood County, were devastated when they learned early this summer that their son’s favorite teacher lost her job. She was in fact a teacher’s assistant who had put her nursing degree to work in the schools with special needs students. She had even come to visit the Brysons’ son in the hospital, which he visits frequently.

But as the state refined its budget over the course of the summer and the severity of the cuts lessened, the teacher, Shirley Downey, got to keep her job after all, providing a huge relief to the Brysons.

Amy Greene, who lost her job running the computer lab at Junaluska Elementary, was classified as a teacher’s assistant.

She did computer instruction for every student in the school at least once a week, and twice a week for those in third through fifth grade.

While Greene taught, the teachers reveled in the rare hiatus from students to plan for the next week or grade papers.

Now, teachers will presumably have to do their own instruction in the computer lab, not only adding to the workload but taking away a needed planning session.

At Central Elementary School, the positions for three teacher’s assistants who worked with underperforming students were cut. The school used to have six, but this year will only have three.

“It is going to be very hectic,” said Lynn Medford, a teacher in the program until this year. “They are going to have to do twice the work.”

Medford said the daily small group and one-on-one interaction was important to the students.

“If you work with them everyday you see where their weakness is and can figure out the best way to teach that child,” Medford said.

Medford has been moved to another open position at the school, and therefore, didn’t lose her job. This type of reshuffling went on across the school system, moving teachers who would otherwise be laid-off into positions vacated by those retiring.


Cuts far-reaching

Other Western North Carolina school districts are struggling with a drop in personnel, though more discreetly than the Haywood system. As teachers and staff leave through retirement or to take other jobs, the positions are either frozen or existing teachers who would otherwise be laid-off move into the open jobs.

“For the past year and a half, as people have retired or resigned, we have not filled that position unless we have to,” said Gwen Edwards, finance director for Jackson County Schools.

According to Edwards, any elective — like vocational education, for example — is on the chopping block when it comes to having someone to teach it. Also vacant in the Jackson system are three assistant principal spots; a receptionist position in the central office; and a bookkeeper at the high school, to name a few.

While these jobs have been cut, at least temporarily, the responsibilities that come with them remain — and are heaped on the plate of teachers and staff.

“The work is kind of split up between people, so it’s a little more work for everyone,” Edwards says.

Next door, Macon County Schools is dealing with its own share of cuts. Again, actual layoffs were avoided by a hiring freeze over the past year. The freeze applied not just to electives, but positions for required subjects.

“We haven’t filled any positions since January, but we do know time’s running out and there will have to be teachers in those classrooms,” Moore said.

Moore said the system has advertised and is currently hiring. But with every position, there’s a catch. Each contract is equipped with a clause that lets new hires know their position “is contingent upon a favorable budget,” Moore says.

With the budget finally passed and signed last week, administrators have mere days to weigh some heavy options before the school year starts.

“We’re going to have to make decisions that are pretty big, pretty soon, and pretty quick,” Moore said.

“With everything changing so much at the state level, it was really hard to make a budget,” agreed Gwen Edwards, finance director of Jackson County schools.

Adding to the challenge is that much of the budget is discretionary — meaning the state left it up to the local districts to decide what to cut.

“Instead, they’re going to make the local board of education the bad guy. We’re going to decide where to make those cuts,” Moore said.

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