Smithfield Herald

Johnston County teachers speak out against state budget proposals

Linda Gunter, right, of the N.C. Association for Educators has been organizing forums across the state to bring together teachers and legislators, including Rep. Leo Daughtry.
Linda Gunter, right, of the N.C. Association for Educators has been organizing forums across the state to bring together teachers and legislators, including Rep. Leo Daughtry.

Twenty Johnston County teachers fed up with how they’re being treated aired their grievances Monday at forum with N.C. Rep. Leo Daughtry.

The N.C. Association of Educators staged the forum, one of many the group has scheduled across the state in hopes that hearing firsthand from teachers will make state lawmakers more sympathetic.

North Carolina teacher salaries rank 48th in the country. It’s a ranking made worse, teachers say, by legislation that would increase class size, end tenure, lay off teacher assistants and end the salary bump for teachers who earn master’s degrees.

High school English teacher Jennifer Holley said that after seven years in the schools, she makes just $34,000 a year and is unable to afford health insurance for her three children. After earning her master’s degree, she makes more money, but all of it goes to repay the $20,000 she borrowed for graduate school.

Holley, whose husband works for the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, said she spends $12 a week on lunches of peanut butter sandwiches, apples and yogurt, because that’s what she can afford.

Holly said if she were to move to Virginia, she’d make $11,000 more. And in South Carolina, she’d get $9,000 more for her experience.

“I constantly worry that something will happen to one of my children and I won’t be able to help them because they don’t have insurance,” she said.

“It is a really sad situation,” said Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield. “I’m not sitting here defending the House and the Senate. I know you all need a raise.”

The Senate budget, passed last month, phases out the salary bump for master’s degrees for teachers who don’t already have them. The House budget ends the salary supplement unless the job requires a master’s degree.

The Senate budget also cuts 4,000 teacher assistants, ends teacher tenure and increases class size in grades K-3. The House budget would tweak tenure while keeping teacher assistants.

Many teachers at the forum said they’ve looked for jobs in other fields and are constantly weighing their love of teaching children against the need to pay their bills.

Terry Weakley, a high school teacher, said he had tried to discourage his daughter from becoming a teacher. “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I tried to tell her that going into education was a not a good idea,” he said.

Increasing class size while doing away with assistants would leave teachers little time to teach, they said. Already, they said, teacher assistants are out of the classroom driving buses, pulling lunchroom duty and helping with testing.

“There are some students in kindergarten that can’t use the bathroom, and we’re helping them do that,” said teacher assistant Misty Medlin. “The teachers don’t have time to teach and give that kind of attention when their classes already have more than 20 students.”

Starla Sherman said her job as a kindergarten teacher would be impossible without an assistant. Now that teachers in grades K-3 are responsible for more testing to assess student achievement, she’s often out of the classroom and relies on her assistant to work with students.

Teachers at the forum also cared little for House Bill 944, which would give low-income families $4,200 a year to send their children to private schools.

“If they didn’t pass that and kept the public money in public schools, they could use the money that’s already been appropriated and give teachers a raise,” Holley said.