OCEAN — Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, told frustrated and sometimes-tearful teachers Friday she would fight to see that all teachers, not just 25 percent, get a pay raise, as a bill approved by the N.C. General Assembly calls for.
However, she is opposed to the career status known as teacher tenure, which the same bill calls for doing away with by 2018.
Ms. McElraft spoke to about 50 Bogue Sound Elementary and Croatan High School teachers and administrators, as well as other county school officials Friday in the Bogue Sound Elementary gym. She also toured classrooms prior to speaking.
Bogue Sound second grade teacher Marsha Sirkin had invited Ms. McElraft to speak to teachers about several legislative actions that have taken place in the last year that teachers say are hurting education, as well as their morale and pocketbooks. Teachers dressed in red to show their support for education.
“We love our jobs, but we are tired and don’t feel respected,” said Ms. Sirkin, fighting back tears. “We can write letters and call, but we need to talk face-to-face. That’s the only real way to get things resolved.”
Ms. McElraft was among Republicans who voted for the Appropriations Act of 2013, which calls for offering pay raises to 25 percent of teachers in exchange for their giving up tenure. Career status, or tenure, gives teachers due process rights if they are fired.
Several education groups have filed a legal action against the law, including the N.C. Association of Educators, the state teachers lobbying group. Many school boards in the state, including Carteret, have approved resolutions opposing the law.
Ms. McElraft, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said while she voted for the law, she did not agree with giving only 25 percent of teachers raises and tying those raises to tenure.
The Appropriations Act of 2013 is designed to phase out teacher tenure by 2018. As a first step, the law requires school boards in 2014 to give $500 pay raises and four-year contracts to 25 percent of their eligible teachers. In exchange, teachers who accept the raises and contracts agree to give up tenure. Principals evaluate teachers and decide which ones qualify for raises, with the school board giving final approval.
“This is not a good way to ask a principal to evaluate you for raises when you all work in teams. That is a bad plan,” she said. “If we want to stop tenure, then just stop tenure. Don’t keep it hanging out there like a carrot for raises.”
Ms. McElraft said she also disapproves of a proposal by Gov. Pat McCrory to give raises to new teachers instead of all teachers.
She said she planned to ask that money set aside for the 25 percent and new teacher raises be used instead to give all teachers a pay raise.
“As far as I’m concerned all of you should get raises. Was I happy with all that went into the education budget this year? Absolutely not. But in order to get the budget passed, sometimes you have to approve things you don’t agree with.”
Ms. McElraft said when Gov. McCrory and legislators took office, they inherited a $3.5 billion state budget deficit. Plus, the state is facing an astronomical cost for Medicaid, which has hurt the economy even more. She said half of the state’s population is now on Medicaid.
“The first order of business was getting the state back in sound fiscal shape,” she said, adding that lowering corporate taxes and taxes on small businesses has encouraged new businesses to move to the state.
“We had to deal with that before we could start paying our bills,” she said. “We need to get you all up to the national average (for pay), but we need a revenue stream to do that.”
For teachers such as fourth grade teacher Jason Vanzant, not getting a pay raise in several years has caused him to get a second job on the weekends.
“I work two jobs and have since 2007,” said Mr. Vanzant, choking back tears. “I work 15 hours a day here, then eight hours on Saturday and several hours on Sundays. I’m cleaning bathrooms and it’s actually demeaning. But you do what you have to do to teach in this county. It doesn’t give me much time for my family. I guess what I’m trying to say is ‘help.’ ”
While much of the time was spent discussing pay issues, teachers said there were other things that have hit classrooms that are demoralizing.
Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year, Callie Smith, a first grade teacher at Bogue Sound, said she was concerned about cuts that have taken away teacher assistants, supplies and resources and increased class sizes.
While the county’s graduation rate and test scores are among the best in the state, she said, that will not continue if adequate funding and personnel aren’t restored to classrooms. She said high school students making the high marks are those who benefited from former smaller class sizes and small student-to-teacher ratios that have been eliminated.
“I am willing to bet your graduation rate stays high a few more years, because those students had the best,” Ms. Smith said. “But instead of celebrating, I worry, I weep and I feel a tad bit sick,” she said with tears in her eyes. “You see, my oldest daughter is in first grade this year. She has been blessed to have two of the best teachers in this school, but she is not receiving the same quality education that the children of the past did.”
Croatan High School media coordinator Julie Perry listed several education cuts that are hurting to the point that teachers are leaving the state to teach elsewhere or just changing professions, she said.
She cited the General Assembly taking away financial incentives for teachers obtaining master’s degrees, cutting out the Teaching Fellows Program, which provided scholarships to top students who entered the profession and cutting professional development for teachers.
“School employees are asked to solve the challenges they face in their schools with inadequate resources, less manpower, less training and less money. Teachers are being evaluated based upon student performance without consideration of the factors that influence student achievement such as class size, instructional resources and poverty. Furthermore, what incentive is there for teachers — beginning or veteran — to remain in the profession when they see that only new teachers are worthy of a pay increase.”
Ms. Perry suggested legislators look at things like ensuring that funds from the N.C. Education Lottery get to teachers in the classrooms versus other uses. Second, look at increasing the beer or sales tax. She further asked that legislators find out how other states are paying all of their teachers at least $40,000 per year.
Ms. McElraft said 100 percent of the lottery funds are being used for education; however, some are being diverted to scholarship money and capital expenses. She agreed to look at not using those funds for scholarships, but making sure they get to teachers for supplies.
Superintendent Dr. Dan Novey touched on the need for the state to not divert funds to private school vouchers and charter schools.
“Public education is absolutely necessary,” he said, adding that state superintendents are starting a campaign, “Every Child’s Chance, Every Community’s Future,” to raise awareness of the importance of public education.
Private schools “aren’t held to the same standards as we are,” Dr. Novey said, adding that he also disagreed with the charter school movement.
“They (charter schools) were supposed to be innovative, but it has turned into two systems. And only 30 percent of them have scores as high as traditional public schools.”
He suggested legislators look at a 1-cent sales tax increase that would provide $1 billion for public education, as well as other tax reforms.
Ms. McElraft assured teachers that she heard what they said and planned to take their concerns back to Raleigh.
Also attending the meeting were County Board of Education member John McLean and County Commissioner Greg Lewis. Neither of them spoke.
Legislators will convene for the short session in May.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.