State budget worries local educators

SALISBURY — Local school employees and officials are voicing concern — even outrage — over the education budget passed by the state Wednesday night.

Based on reports earlier Wednesday, the North Carolina General Assembly’s budget is expected to cut funding for teaching assistants in second-grade and third-grade classrooms, but it continues to fund those in kindergarten and first grade.

This year, the budget includes no pay raises for teachers or other state employees, instead adding five days of paid leave.

But starting next year, teachers who sign four-year contracts are eligible to receive an annual merit raise from their superintendents. Tenure would be gradually phased out over the next few years, and teachers would no longer get a salary boost for earning master’s degrees.

The budget still needs to receive approval by Gov. Pat McCrory before it becomes final.

Susana DMello, of Salisbury, a teacher assistant at Koontz Elementary, said she thinks the budget is sending the wrong message about the importance of education.

“As a parent myself, I am just outraged that teachers are being treated so poorly,” she said.

DMello said she works as a teacher assistant for both first and third grades, and her day is “completely packed.”

She said TAs help with small group instruction and giving children more individual attention. While the teachers are teaching, assistants like DMello might pull out certain students on a weekly or biweekly basis to give them remediation and monitor their progress.

TAs also can be there to watch the class when the teacher has to leave, in order to tend to a child with a medical issue or other urgent need.

Often, they’re also called upon to drive buses part-time for the school system.

DMello said she is concerned about her job, but she’s more bothered by what’s happening to teachers.

“They are already experiencing burnout, and people are leaving the profession,” she said. “Not to give teachers tenure, not to give teachers a pay raise if they’re doing a master’s degree, not to allow them to do better for themselves — that’s telling them to leave the school system.”

DMello said tax cuts in the budget are meant to help families, but they will hurt the public schools that educate their children.

“I think the money could have been very well spent on system where we have managed with so little all these years,” DMello said. “Do you consider children to be the future of this nation? Then sacrifices need to be made for these children.”

Alison Hart, of Concord, a first grade teacher at E.D. Koontz Elementary School, said this budget will change North Carolina education — but not for the better.

“It will challenge teachers to determine if they want to stay in the profession or go to a profession where they can have the opportunity to grow, get pay increases, tenure, and the ability to still change lives (like the medical field),” Hart wrote in a Facebook message. “I challenge all people associated with passing this budget and any other bills dealing with the educational system, to spend a day in a classroom.”

Quoting a letter she sent to state legislators, Hart said her own teacher assistant has been an asset, both to her and to the students.

“Passing this budget will cause thousands of teacher assistants to lose their job,” she wrote. “Without teacher assistants, teachers will become more stressed and overwhelmed, possibly impacting students’ learning.”

Hart said she has thought about going back to school to get her master’s degree, both to help her students and to give her more financial security. But now, she and other teachers will have to reconsider the costs of going back to school.

Republican majority leaders in the General Assembly have said they are balancing the budget responsibly in light of increased Medicaid costs and other expenses. They said the shift to merit pay for teachers would help ensure that students get a good education.

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Officials with the Rowan-Salisbury School System haven’t yet heard from the state how this budget will impact it, said Rita Foil, public information officer.

“There will be a Board of Education work session within the next couple of weeks to look at different scenarios for the board to review and to make a decision,” Foil said.

According to late versions of the budget, the state would offer low-income students grants of up to $4,200 a year to pay for private school tuition.

In a prepared statement, Superintendent Judy Grissom said this would effectively divert public education funds to private schools.

“I have no problems with parents having choices — we have had private schools as long as I can remember and charter schools for several years,” Grissom wrote. “However, I do have deep concerns when needed funds for our public schools are being cut in order to fund all these options, while the emphasis on accountability for public education has increased. I am worried about the future of public education in North Carolina.”

Frank Cardelle, principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School, said he understands why it’s difficult for the public school system to lose any revenue.

But he said he believes the vouchers would benefit local children and their families, not just the private schools themselves.

“For those who would never gotten to attend, witness or experience private school education, it gives them a chance to do that,” Cardelle said. “Maybe a child is not doing well in public school. They can go to a private school where the classroom is smaller and there are other things offered for them.”

For this reason, Sacred Heart already offers its own tuition deduction for qualifying families, he said. Another provision in the budget would allow school boards to partner with local law enforcement to bring in armed volunteers as safety officers in public schools.

Foil said the school system’s safety task force actually recommended a similar idea several months ago, and the idea could be revisited.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education chose to request money for paid school resource officers in all middle schools, but county commissioners didn’t include funding for it in their budget.

According to the state budget, the volunteer officers would be required to have previous experience as either a law enforcement officer or a military police officer. They could not be sued for actions taken in good faith.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.



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