About two dozen teachers and supporters protested state and county education budgets on a street corner near North Garner Middle School on Monday morning, hoping to draw people to public hearings by Wake County commissioners over the county budget.
Organized by North Garner Middle School teacher Marcia Timmel, the protest took aim at various cuts to education including the county manager’s decision not to include a school board-suggested 3.2 percent raise in its budget request.
“We’re hoping that a strong enough show of support tonight would let (the commissioners) realize the public does support stanching this exodus of teachers out of this state,” Timmel said.
County staff included most of the school board’s budget request in its initial draft, but not the pay raises. Monday night the commissioners voted for a much smaller raise than the school board proposed that would be funded by the district’s fund balance, not a tax increase. The amount will be determined by conversations between the superintendent and county manager, but the idea is to at least add enough to move the average annual supplement of $6,204 up at least $237 to become the highest average supplement in the state.
Commissioner chairman Phil Matthews of Garner cited the already-coming 4.4-cent tax increase from the school bond as a reason to refuse a tax increase.
“We are not about to go to taxpayers after approving a bond and ask for another 3 cents to fund that other $30 million. It was just not a good time to do it and we didn’t think they will buy into it,” Matthews said.
Board member Christine Kushner objected that using the fund balance to fund salaries was unsustainable, and the commissioners also didn’t satisfy many upset advocates who spoke at the two public hearings Monday. Matthews said the school district had a large undesignated fund balance, one substantially greater than required and that “some are pleased with that, some are not pleased, some I don‘t know if they will ever be pleased.”
He also said the district had sprung the $29.1 million raise proposal on the county with little prior discussion or warning, and said the proposal gave a raise to superintendent Jim Merrill was far greater than any teacher.
‘Bad situation out of the gate’
“They came up with that figure and tossed it out there, and by doing it, it put a lot of people under pressure,” Matthews said. “That just created a bad situation out of the gate.”
He also said teacher’s pay is largely a state issue, and he said he hoped the modest increase would send the right message.
The state legislature’s proposed budget includes larger pay raises, which Timmel characterized as a “shell game.” The North Garner Teacher of the Year and semifinalist for Wake County Teacher of the Year noted that the state education budget actually shrank. She said the money for a higher starting salary and wage increases, largely for newer teachers, came from other educators. In particular, she blasted the end of longevity pay and the halving of funding for teacher assistants.
Timmel said increasing costs of insurance and elimination of longevity pay meant teachers with more than 10 years would effectively take about a 1.5 percent pay cut.
“Basically the children have been asked to pay for the teachers, and unlike legislators, we’re not cannibals, so we’re not going to devour our young for personal gain,” Timmel said.
Teachers not valued
Virtually every time a few cars passed the group, gathered across from the Toot ‘N Tell restaurant on Garner Road, at least some drivers honked their horns in apparent support for the red-clad, sign-wielding demonstrators.
Several other North Garner teachers joined Timmel, including last year’s North Garner teacher of the year, Steve Mitchell. Mitchell started teaching in New Jersey in 1971, and said that when he first moved to North Carolina a decade ago, he earned more in take-home pay than he does today. In addition to the paucity of raises, he said, the last five years have presented teachers with more stress than appreciation.
Mitchell said the controversy “wasn’t about the money.” However, he also noted that experienced, talented teachers could earn more making pastries and cakes than teaching.
“I thought when I came down here in 2004 that North Carolina had a very progressive and very solid education system,” Mitchell said. “It’s about how teachers are treated. It’s difficult, because you can see the education system seems to be going downhill.”
Other North Garner teachers, including math teacher Tammy Lackey, also said they felt unappreciated and that their profession was not valued by policy-makers.
India Walton called the raises that older teachers could take in exchange for giving up their tenure rights “the dangling carrot,” one the teacher four years from retirement said she won’t take.
“If you are going to give us a raise, give us a raise. We work hard every day. We’re here because we love school, we love our teachers, we love the kids. That’s why we’re here,” Walton said.