Educators, parents seek answers on school funding cuts at town hall forum

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 15, 2013

SALISBURY — The message from panelists and speakers from the floor at Thursday’s Rowan-Salisbury Schools Community Town Hall was clear:
Give schools more funding and pay teachers fairly.
The event was sponsored by Public Schools First N.C., the North Carolina Education Association and the Rowan Salisbury Association of Educators.
About 50 parents, teachers and staff attended, with at least one elected official in the audience — N.C. Rep. Harry Warren.
Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education Chairman Richard Miller was a panelist.
So were West Rowan Middle School Principal Nancy Barkemeyer, former district Teacher of the Year April Williamson and parent Malinda Kemp.
One of the night’s recurring themes was education, and how it contributes to freedom.
Some quoted from the state constitution and the founding fathers.
But all spoke from personal experience about what they said are the failings of the current approach to education in Raleigh.
“We need ways to measure our children other than tests,” said Page McCullough, director of outreach for Public Schools First N.C. “We’re not trying to raise test-takers, we’re trying to raise citizens.”
McCullough went on to give statistics that show North Carolina spending less than surrounding states on education.
North Carolina spends only $43 per student for textbooks, technologies and instructional supplies, and pays teachers less than the national average, McCullough said.
“If we don’t do something about the way we are paying teachers, the lack of support that they’re getting and the lack of respect that they are feeling, they are going to go someplace else,” Barkemeyer said.
Barkemeyer said some teachers at her school may be lost to higher-paying jobs in South Carolina and other states unless something changes.
Miller quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying that the education of the populace is needed in order to preserve liberty, and said he feels the local school board is “making a concerted effort” to lead.
At the same time, Miller said, the board of education must rely on local, state and federal officials to provide them with revenues to educate some 20,000 students.
Later in the evening, an audience member brought up the controversial decisions in Raleigh to put all teachers on year-to-year contract, and to limit bonus pay and four-year contracts to the top 25 percent of teachers in the state.
Those changes come in addition to the legislature’s stripping out of higher pay for most faculty with advanced degrees and those who’ve taught for six or more years.
When it came his turn to speak, Miller said those changes amount to “undoing public education as we know it.”
“And if I had the authority,” Miller went on, “I would say thank you but no thanks … I’ve seen 40 years of pay-for-performance plans, and none of them have worked because they were never adequately funded.”
Another recurring theme was the cut in funds for teaching assistants.
When the panel was asked how each would respond to possible funding cuts that could result in slashing positions, Miller said, “We can’t say what the school board’s position is until we see the revenue.”
However, he went on to say that “we could have saved 100 positions for what we’re spending other money on.”
Miller did not elaborate, but there was scattered applause from the audience.
After the meeting, Miller confirmed that his comment was a reference to the county’s $3.45 million bid to purchase the Salisbury Mall, a deal expected to close on Dec. 2.
Williamson, a teacher at Southeast Middle School, said teachers work hard to provide top quality education, but they need the support of assistants and other staff to do their best work.
She challenged the audience to imagine how well they could teach a kindergarten class with as many as 24 children, with little or no staff support.
“Tell me how much quality education you’re going to be able to give to those students,” Williamson said.
In addition, Williamson said many teachers are having to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet, especially those who are paying off student loans.
“I know teachers that are managers, working 36 hours outside of their full-time jobs,” said Williamson.
And, with bonuses for advanced degrees being eliminated, Williamson said many of her colleagues would be struggling to pay for an education they’d sought believing that it would improve their pay.
“Are (legislators) really wanting experts, or are they wanting someone in the classroom who throws out knowledge?” Williamson asked the audience.
Going back to the question of bonus pay, Barkemeyer said the new reward system could actually keep teachers from sharing ideas that work.
“(Teaching) is supposed to be about sharing,” Barkemeyer said. “We are there about that one common goal, to educate students.”
She also noted that, after taxes, those bonuses for teachers in the top 25 percent amount to less than $100 per pay period over four years.
The evening’s most impassioned comments came from educator Jim Wohlgemuth.
“This room should be filled! My God, where are the parents?” Wohlgemuth asked.
He challenged panelists and attendees to reach out to others, and urged them to call elected officials and raise their concerns.
Marian Thompson, president of the Rowan-Salisbury Association of Educators, told the Post that emails had been sent out countywide announcing the event.
Avery Staley, parent of a West Rowan Middle School student, called for voters to take responsibility for what elected officials have done.
“At what point do we take a look at the advocacy in terms of who we’re sending to Raleigh?” Staley asked. “Right now, the blood is in the streets and the kids are the ones who are suffering, and the teachers.”
After the meeting, Warren (R-77) said he had attended several similar town hall meetings on education issues.
“There’s a consistency in the concerns that are being expressed, and it certainly does highlight the fact that teachers need better compensation, and we need a better compensation plan if we want to retain teachers.”
Warren said he expects that pay for advanced degrees, testing requirements and other issues will be addressed in the upcoming legislative session.
Miller, meanwhile, told the Post that the town hall was “a beginning conversation. I think we’ve got to have a lot more of them for people to understand what’s really taking place.”
“I think there is a real agenda to undermine public education,” Miller said, “and that’s just unconscionable to me.”