Chapel Hill: Opinion

Orange County commissioners must stand for education

On May 19, so many people packed the Orange County Board of County Commissioners’ public hearing in Chapel Hill that the fire marshal closed the building: No one could enter until another person left.

Inside, hundreds of community members, parents, students from kindergarten through post-graduation, and teachers showed their support for Chapel Hill-Carrboro (CHCCS) and Orange County’s teachers, pleading with the commissioners to fully fund the schools’ budget requests.

Under the current budget proposal, CHCCS would come up $4 million short – just because it’s doing its best to offer competitive pay that will help the district recruit and retain teachers during an exceptionally ugly time for teaching.

Students and parents spoke movingly about how on the brink many teachers’ finances are. The student body presidents of all three CHCCS high schools, one in tears, begged the commissioners to do right by their dedicated teachers, who work long days pouring themselves into their students’ education, then must work second jobs – not for fancy extras in life, but just to pay basic monthly bills. It’s great to see them put their civics education into practice, but shameful that this is what they have to worry about as they face their final exams.

A kindergartener asked the board to fully fund the schools so that his teacher would still be around when his little sister started school. Principals lit the crowd up with their accounts of the difficulty filling open positions, forcing them to smush more children into fewer classes, or to fill in with long-term subs for everything from crucial high school math classes to classes for special education students, some of the district’s most fragile.

Others pointed out how failing to pay teachers enough affects the push to close the achievement gap. Notably, district administrators noted that the courageous decision by the school board to raise our teacher pay supplement had an immediate impact – before, we couldn’t compete for great teachers, who knew how much more Wake County, not to mention surrounding states, offered. After, district recruiters encountered much higher enthusiasm for coming to CHCCS.

Of course, funding at the state level has caused much of the district’s woes. The utter scapegoating of teachers by state legislators goes beyond the pale; our fall to the bottom in teacher pay nationally – despite election-year pseudo-support for education with small raises and insulting bonuses instead of raises – is a sheer disgrace, noted nationally (at a national education conference recently, one of us received looks of pity and incredulity at what’s happened to education in North Carolina since Gov. Jim Hunt’s days in in office whenever she had to admit where she was from).

So we all can and must continue to work to change the attitude in Raleigh. But right now, what can and must change is the Orange County budget proposal. To recruit and retain great teachers – even just enough teachers – both schools districts need the commissioners to take the taxpayers’ money they control and focus it firmly and fully on education.

Yes, we have many competing needs, and yes, every year we must do this dance about education funding with the commissioners, and yes, we appreciate the funding level that already exists. But this year is different, and this year requires the commissioners to set aside some of the other nice- to-have things in the county budget temporarily to reallocate even more funds to teachers.

The school board had to go ahead in April and approve offering higher salaries for next year, given that the recruitment season had already started and we are in direct competition with Wake County, which has committed to higher pay and offers a lower cost of living. Given that reality, if the commissioners leave a gap between the amount they provide and the district’s budget request, the district will have to make deep, painful cuts across the district and central office – the equivalent right now of $200,000 per school and central office.

To many of us, knowing the precariousness of teachers’ situations, it seems pretty heroic that they continue to show up every day and do all that they do for this district’s precious children – our towns’ future. It’s always said of teachers that they’re not in this for the money. Of course not – but they deserve a decent quality of life, one not focused solely on how to make it to the next paychecks.

The commissioners consistently give county employees raises, and last summer gave themselves a 20 percent raise. Don’t our teacher deserve the same respect? Education is Orange County’s industry. The two school districts are economic engines for this county, and rank just behind UNC and the hospitals as the county’s biggest employers. The commissioners don’t like it when people say “I moved here for the schools” – but that just reinforces how much education matters to their constituents. We can’t just continue to talk about how much we appreciate teachers and send them flowers one week a year: This year, let’s make that appreciation tangible, yearlong, and supportive of what this county does best.

Kate Underhill, president, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools PTA Council

Lisa Kaylie, incoming president, CHCCS PTA Council

Sharon Kebschull Barrett, PTA Council Vice President

Jill Simon, PTA Council Treasurer

Kristen Commons, PTA Council Secretary

And the presidents all of CHCCS PTAs except McDougle Middle, who was unavailable –their names are

Riza Redd, PTA President, Seawell Elementary School

Imelda C. Migaly, PTA President, Rashkis Elementary School

Karen Herpel, PTA President, Carrboro Elementary School

Kristen Stewart, PTA President, Ephesus Elementary School

Sally Goodnight, PTA President, Northside Elementary School

Carolina Avary, PTA President, Frank Porter Graham Bilingue

Susan Swafford, PTA President, Glenwood Elementary School

Tiffany Allen, PTA President, Scroggs Elementary School

Stacey Lange, PTA President, Morris Grove Elementary

Carolina Mejia-Davis , PTA President, McDougle Elementary

Elizabeth Thomas, PTA President, Estes Hills Elementary

Elizabeth Welsby, PTSA President, Guy B Phillips Middle School

Maria C. La Via, PTSA President, Culbreth Middle School

Abbe Simon, PTSA President, Smith Middle School

Laura Malinchock, PTSA President, Chapel Hill High School

Emily Martine, PTSA President, Carrboro High School

Reggie Fajack, PTSA President, East Chapel Hill High School