Local educators meet with legislators, commissioners, school board members

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Local teachers discussed their positions on pay, health insurance, retirement, personal leave, collective bargaining and more Saturday morning when they met with legislators, county commissioners and school board members.
After the teachers had their say, N.C. Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, offered a sobering Raleigh perspective.
With today’s economy and the state facing an enormous budget deficit, it’s not going to be a year for raising taxes, Coates said.
“Listening to y’all, it sounds like money, money, money,” she added.
But Sarah Drinkard, president of the Rowan-Salisbury Association of Educators, countered that much of what her group and the state association are focusing on this year would be low-cost items in the grand scheme.
She said she realized it’s a hard year, “but these are some things we can’t afford not to do,” Drinkard said.
“We need to look at what is best in the long run,” she added, describing the issues on the N.C. Association of Educators’ list as imperative.
The educators’ group sponsored a brunch for the local leaders at Salisbury High School’s media center.
Those attending included Coates and Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan; County Commissioners Carl Ford, Jon Barber, Tina Hall and Raymond Coltrain; County Manager Gary Page; and Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education members Karen Carpenter and Jim Emerson.
The brunch’s agenda devoted about five minutes each to a topic.
On salaries, the group emphasized the need for educational support professionals ó teacher assistants, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, laborers, clerical assistants, school bus mechanics and technical assistants ó to make “a living wage.”
A living wage was defined as an income necessary for a family of four to live above the poverty level.
A 25 percent cut in the number of teacher assistants has been one of the budget-cutting recommendations from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“Our ESPs are our foundation,” said Pat Murtaugh, media coordinator at West Rowan High School. “… I get concerned about those cuts. We really need to increase their salaries. … They’re really, really hurting.”
The state sets the range of pay for teacher assistants, but the ranges are not based on years of work experience, meaning placement and pay at the local level is subjective.
Two employees could essentially be in the same assistant’s position with the same amount of experience, but their pay could be quite different.
Minimum pay for ESP employees is $18,347, which is below the federal poverty level.
The educators’ group recommends that a state salary schedule be established based on educational levels and work experience for all ESP employees. It calls on the General Assembly to increase funding levels so there’s an adequate number of ESP employees in each school district, and it also is lobbying to raise the minimum wage above the federal poverty level.
On health insurance, Sarah Brown, a special education teacher at Enochville Elementary, said new employees should be covered from their first day on the job and not have to fear what might happen during a 30-day waiting period.
She said the state health plan’s “open enrollment” period should be put on a calendar year basis. She described the problems teachers have in knowing which health-plan option to choose in the spring when deductibles and premiums for various coverages aren’t known because legislators don’t pass a budget until the summer.
On retirement, Susan Eldridge said the state’s employer contribution should increase and cost-of-living raises that have been neglected in recent years should be restored. Over the last 10 years, the teachers said, the state gave only 1 percent increases or none at all and instead relied on what investments were doing.
“Our state is going to have to step up and fund its part of retirement,” Lina Drinkard said.
The educators called for the state to fund one more day of paid personal leave per year ó without a deduction in pay ó and allow personal leave for teacher assistants who require a substitute.
Classroom teachers and media specialists now receive one day of personal paid leave, but $50 is deducted if that happens on a student day.
Personal leave could be used for things such as closing on a home, the death of a close friend or relative, going to court for a divorce or traffic ticket, graduation of a family member, birth of a grandchild, a college visitation or a personal emergency.
Some confusion seemed to exist over the state and local policies on rehiring retired teachers.
“Is there a movement to encourage not rehiring?” asked Nancy Whitman, a first-grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary.
“There is in Rowan County,” Coates said, noting she has a teacher neighbor who was not rehired at Elizabeth Hanford Dole Elementary.
Teachers said the legislation allowing the state to rehire retired teachers ends June 30. The NCAE wants school systems’ ability to rehire retirees to be extended to at least October 2011.
Lina Drinkard noted that every time a retiree is hired it’s for one year, and it’s supposed to be done only to fill positions where a new teacher can’t be recruited and hired.
The retirees are especially important in taking math, science and special education positions that the school system has trouble filling, Drinkard said. While the pay for retirees is more, the real costs and frustration to the school system is investing time and money in the development of new teachers and seeing them leave for higher-paying jobs after three years, Drinkard said.
She noted that the state had 12,000 new teaching positions to fill this year, but colleges and universities in North Carolina only graduated 3,800 teachers. “We have a real problem with what we’re doing, and we have to do better,” she said.
The NCAE supports collective bargaining but not the right to strike. Coates supports the efforts toward collective bargaining, but Steen said he would oppose it.
“North Carolina has to stay a Right to Work state,” he said.
Steen said the issues raised Saturday are matters of money and fiscal responsibility. Finding a clear balance is tough, he said. North Carolina faces a lot of challenges as it grows, diversifies and its educational system competes with students all over the world, Steen said.
“And part of that formula is how we pay teachers,” he acknowledged.
Forty hours a week is not representative of the time teachers spend outside the classroom grading, planning, meeting and doing paperwork, Murtaugh said.
“We really need to keep an eye on maintaining salaries and benefits” and making sure they are as competitive as possible with other states, she said.