Sen. Berger meets with teachers protesting his education policies

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 9, 2014 

— Fifteen teachers in matching white T-shirts broke off from the crowd of demonstrators at the N.C. Legislative Building and gathered outside the office door of the state senate leader who spearheaded many of the education reforms troubling them.

“Sen. Berger,” Bryan Proffit, a history teacher from Hillside High School in Durham, called out between knocks. “Sen. Berger, we’d like to meet with you.”

Sen. Phil Berger, a 61-year-old lawyer from Eden, in his fourth session at the head of the N.C. Senate, was not in his office when the teachers arrived.

But about two hours later, Berger sat down the demonstrators in the hallway and had a conversation with them – a first by a Republican leader with the so-called “Moral Monday” movement.

The teachers, who came from varied schools across the state, had questions for him and he answered them, though there was disagreement.

They argued about numbers and dollar figures and how the state money should be spent.

Berger told the protesters that he valued what the protesters had to say even if he might disagree with them.

“That doesn’t mean your opinions aren’t worth listening to,” Berger said as the conversation wrapped up. “It just means sometimes we have differences and sometimes those differences can be very strongly felt. While we may not solve the problems that are out there, I’ll listen to what your proposals are.”

The major education legislation last year spearheaded by Berger included phasing out teacher tenure, shifting toward performance-based raises, and a mandate that most third-graders read at grade level before promotion. That plan received much criticism from teachers and others and hit legal roadblocks in the courts.

This year, the Republican leaders have put forward a new strategy. They have suggested a two-pronged plan through which teachers who agree to give up tenure would be eligible for substantial pay raises. Tenure in the public schools, unlike at the university level, allows due-process hearings when jobs are at stake, but does not prevent a low-performing teacher from being fired.

“What they don’t know is we have an evaluation plan that already addresses low-performing teachers,” said Gloria Hornage, 59, a civics and economics teacher at Northern Vance High School who has attended rallies this year and last outside the Legislative Building. “That’s what step six in the evaluation plan is.”

Hornage, a 30-year veteran teaching in North Carolina’s public schools, was not among the group that went to Berger’s door.

She was among the nearly 750 demonstrators, according to police estimates, who gathered for Monday’s rally, part of the “Moral Monday” demonstrations that started last year.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP and an organizer of the Monday events, spoke to the protesters under the steamy setting sun. His parents were educators and his children have all gone to North Carolina public schools.

“So like many of you, I take the attacks on public schools personally,” Barber said to applause and cheers.

The demonstration on Monday did not pull in thousands as some of the late-summer Moral Mondays did last year.

Mike Woodard, a state senator from Durham and a Democrat in the minority in the General Assembly this year, was outside among the demonstrators before the Senate session began.

“I’m not sure they’re making a difference inside,” Woodard said of the ralliers wearing red T-shirts in support of education. “Where they’re making a difference is with people around the state.”

Republicans leaders largely ignored the demonstrators last year.

On May 19, the first Monday of the short session, Thom Tillis, the House leader who is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, did not meet with 15 demonstrators who staged a sit-in at his office.

General Assembly police arrested those demonstrators early in the morning after the Tillis office sit-in and charged them with trespass.

As the demonstrators work to keep their message alive, General Assembly police have changed their tactics some from last year.

This year, the General Assembly officers have said their goal is to avoid arrest.

Last year, the protesters and the police followed a similar pattern each Monday evening. Demonstrators rallied outside the Legislative Building, then gathered inside, just beyond the chamber doors, and sang, chanted and clapped.

Police then asked everybody to leave and those who stayed were arrested peaceably.

Last week, 11 demonstrators were arrested at the North Carolina Capitol after refusing to leave when Gov. Pat McCrory did not meet with them to discuss their concerns about policies for the environment and health care.

Staff photographer Travis Long contributed to this report.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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