The Wake County school system is joining the growing list of North Carolina school districts that will close next Wednesday because so many teachers will be absent to protest in Raleigh for better pay and working conditions.
Wake County school leaders announced Monday afternoon that schools will be closed May 16 because more than 2,500 teachers, or more than a quarter of all Wake teachers, have requested May 16 off. Thousands of teachers from across the state plan to be in Raleigh for the "March For Students and Rally For Respect."
"With that number of teachers who are going to share their voices on Jones Street on May 16th, we find it very imperative that we support that and close our school district to ensure that our students have what they need and have teachers who are there to provide the services," Wake school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said in a news conference Monday.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems had already decided to close May 16 because so many teachers plan to be out. The Orange County and the Guilford County school systems and Mooresville Graded School District in Iredell County also announced Monday that they'll close May 16.
Wake is North Carolina's largest school system with 160,000 students, followed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford County. Between the three, more than a quarter of the state's public school students will now have off May 16.
"I think it is sad that WCPSS bent to political pressure from teachers unions and Democrat politicians who are playing politics with our children," said Wake County Republican Party Chairman Charles Hellwig in an email message. "Our students are being used as pawns once again — the left has no shame."
State House Speaker Tim Moore said "it's a bad time to be protesting" and closing schools when the end of year exams are coming soon. The Cleveland County Republican also asserted that the marches are partisan.
"It seems to me this is part of a national thing that has been orchestrated by Democrats," Moore said. "If you look at other states where this has happened, they have not been as generous as we have."
But the decision to close schools was praised by the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators.
"What they decided to do was in the best interests of all the partners in education in this entire county," said Paulette Jones Leaven, president of Wake NCAE.
Last week, Wake school officials said they had enough substitute teachers to hold school on May 16. But school officials said the number of teachers who requested May 16 off rose to the point where they could no longer get enough subs to supervise students.
"As the numbers began to come in, it became clear to us that we weren't going to open schools that didn't have enough educators to ensure student instruction," Johnson-Hostler said.
Next week's rally coincides with the opening of the N.C. General Assembly — and is attracting national attention because it also coincides with #RedForEd teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation.
“This is not just about pay," said Jones Leaven. "This is about resources. This is about advocating for our students.
"This is a way to respectfully voice where we are and then return to work."
The National Education Association recently reported that North Carolina's average teacher pay ranked 39th in the nation last school year and is expected to rise to 37th this year, up from a low of 45th in 2011. Advocates for higher pay note that's still well below the national average. Republican supporters note this year's average topped $50,000 for the first time and say the national ranking would be higher if cost of living were factored in.
"We've been working very hard to undo the damage that was done by Democrats when they froze teacher pay," said Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. " ... I think the numbers don't lie on that."
Leaders of the N.C. Association of Educators are careful to say their May 16 action is neither a walkout nor a strike. North Carolina is a right-to-work state where teacher strikes are illegal. However, state law gives teachers the right to take personal leave with at least five days' advance notice — as long as a substitute is available and the teacher pays a $50 "required substitute deduction."
But by canceling classes, teachers won't have to take a personal day now.
It will be an optional teacher workday in Wake County. Wake students won't have to make up the day because they have more than the minimum hours of annual instruction required under state law.
But the day off could pose challenges for some Wake students. Wake plans to open some schools where students can get meals. Wake will also provide school bus service to high schools so that students can take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams on May 16.
"We are ensuring that our students' education is not being ignored in this," Johnson-Hostler said.
The decision to close schools could also create childcare issues for families.
"We are extremely aware that disrupting family routines puts a burden on parents," Johnson-Hostler said in a a statement Monday. "At the same time, the voices of our teachers need to be heard. Year after year our teachers are asked to do more with less.
"I ask that you support them in their decision to highlight the needs of their profession and your children."
Some Wake parents vented their frustration on social media.
"Canceling school right before EOGs is a very poor decision," tweeted Laura Hudson. "You are telling my kids that a teacher’s protest on a school day is more important than their education. Hard to support that! POLITICS=1, STUDENTS=0."
But some parents and students defended the decision to close school.
"Thank you for supporting our teachers. As a parent, I want our teachers to be heard and respected by #NCGA," tweeted Robert Sposato Wall.
With so many school districts now planning to close, the N.C. Council of Churches plans to gather local church leaders for a Thursday morning meeting to discuss how to support public schools and families on May 16.
Some North Carolina school systems don't expect to close May 16.
Chatham County schools anticipate having a regular school day on May 16. The school district expects 36 employees in instructional positions to be away from work that day. Six of those requests are for personal time, one is for work-related training, 17 are for sick time and 12 are for professional development.
Greg Childress of the Herald-Sun and Will Doran contributed.