Cuts threaten programs, salaries and jobs
Last Thursday, faculty and staff at various schools around Macon County showed their support for public eduction by wearing red. The symbolic dress was part of a statewide action initiated by the North Carolina Association of Educators and meant to raise awareness and send a message to state legislators who had just returned for the new session of the General Assembly.
“We want parents and residents of Macon County to know that public education is under attack,” said Shelley Marshall, a teacher at Union Academy and president of the Macon County Association of Educators, the NCAE’s local affiliate. To fill a $3.7 billion hole in next year’s state budget, the governor and legislators are considering cuts to the education budget of as much as 15 percent, leaving school districts throughout the state with the prospect of cuts to programs and salaries as well as layoffs.
Marshall mentioned that North Carolina was recently ranked the third lowest in the nation in terms of per-student spending. “We’re operating on a very modest budget anyway,” Marshall said. “Any additional cuts are going to be painful.”
During a presentation to the board of education last week, Macon County Schools, Superintendent Dan Brigman noted that the district stands to lose as much as $2.3 million on top of the $2.4 million in federal stabilization and stimulus funds set to expire in June.
At South Macon Elementary School on Thursday, participation in the colorful protest seemed nearly unanimous as faculty and staff assembled in the gym for a group picture. Even those who forgot to wear red showed up to be in the picture and lend their support to the message being sent to legislators.
What is the message? “We’ve got to be funded,” said South Macon guidance counsellor Rena Sutton. “There is a group of [legislators] who want to stand for what they ran on and reduce taxes, but the math just isn’t there – it just doesn’t add up,” said Sutton, who is also a MCAE member.
Gov. Beverly Perdue and many legislators have said they intend to let temporary state taxes which were instituted in 2009 expire at the end of the year, which will cut $1.3 billion from the state revenue.
According to Sutton, the cuts will come at a time when need is greatest. “With the economy in such as bad situation, people have even less money to provide for their own children.”
Sutton says that lately she spends as much time helping families with basic survival needs as she does counseling for emotional and behavioral issues. “Now I have to think much more about the physical needs and the pressure parents are under,” she explained. Sutton cited one specific measure of this need: South Macon sends home more than 60 CareNet “backpacks” with food for students each weekend.
Kristen Lynch, a third grade teacher at South Macon, says that the public education in the state has been operating on a shoe-string budget for years and that a cut of an additional 10 percent would be “a tremendous blow” to education statewide. “These are very somber times,” Lynch acknowledged, “However ... when we have education on the table, we have our students and children on the table.”
Asked what impact salary cuts would have on education in the state, Lynch said she feared that it would drive quality teachers out of the workforce and into other professions where they can make a living.
“We’re actually pretty scared,” said Marshall. “In my career, I’ve never seen the situation this bad.”
Besides the impact to education – which will probably include cutting programs such as Academically Gifted and Exceptional Children programs and possibly even athletics programs – Marshall said she is concerned about the impact to the local economy, noting that the school system is one of the county's largest employers. Cutting salaries could have many negative effects, Marshall explained, from local businesses to mortgage payments. “I think it will be more of a burden on the economy that it’s going to be a benefit,” she said.
Marshall, who is also a mother of school-aged children, noted that last week teachers and staff at South Macon, Union Academy, Cartoogechaye Elementary School and Macon Early College all wore red. Other schools planned to organize similar actions this week. The NCAE has also announced that it would encourage districts to wear read every Tuesday until the end of the year. Hundreds of pictures of teachers in red have already been posted on the NCAE website.
“The thing about educators is we like our jobs, so we don’t really like complaining,” Marshall said. “Most of us feel pretty lucky that we have a job we love ... but it’s starting to really hit home with the awareness that this a serious time for education. ... It’s time for us to step up and speak our minds.”
Marshall notes that in organizing the Wear Red days, the MCAE has had the full support of Superintendent Brigman and the central administration. “We’ve had wonderful cooperation,” she said.
Marshall adds that educators around the state are launching a massive lobbying effort, of which the Wear Red action is one part. Later in the month, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler has agreed to meet with educators in western North Carolina to discuss options. Some state legislators, including Speaker Thom Tillis (R), have also pledged to not cut education.
Such support gives teachers like Lynch some hope. “As dismal as the [situation] must seem to outsiders, I am truly optimistic that North Carolina ... will make the right decisions and put our students and our teachers first,” Lynch said.