Politics & Government

NC schools chief opposes May 1 teacher rally. He says protest should be on a non-school day.

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson is opposing the upcoming May 1 mass teacher rally in Raleigh, saying it will force schools to close that day.

In a statement released Thursday, Johnson said that while he supports teachers, he can’t support the call from the N.C. Association of Educators for teachers to take May 1 off to lobby state lawmakers for higher pay and expansion of Medicaid funding.

NCAE wants a repeat of last year’s May 16 march that brought 19,000 protesters and resulted in school closures that caused more than 1 million students to miss classes that day. So many teachers requested the day off last year that at least 42 school districts, including all of the state’s biggest systems, closed for the day because they said they couldn’t find enough substitute teachers.

“The protest organizers should choose a non-school day,” Johnson said in the statement. “The legislature will be in session in Raleigh for at least another three months, a time period that spans dozens of days students are not scheduled to be in school, including spring break and summer break.

“Protesting is a right that can be just as effective during non-school hours. Closing schools affects not only students’ learning and nutrition, but also parents, other school employees, and other teachers.”

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, has been supportive of the GOP-led state legislature. He also criticized last year’s decision to hold the march on a school day.

NCAE defended the timing of the protest. They’ve been critical of Johnson in the past, going as far as not inviting him to speak at their annual conventions.

“Superintendent Johnson underestimates the critical needs that face our public schools today,” Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, said in a statement Thursday. “Time is of the essence so that we do not lose a generation of students with underfunded, starving, under-resourced public schools.

The state legislature sets the schedule for the budget process, and our rally is meant to impact the budget discussions as early as possible. Educators from all over North Carolina are requesting personal days in order to advocate for our students and public education.”

Johnson hasn’t announced if he will run for re-election in 2020. Democratic candidates for state superintendent criticized Johnson’s statement and defended NCAE’s decision to hold the protest.

“This just show-that he (Johnson) reports to (Senate leader) Phil Berger and that he is following the advice of the Republican majority that wants to privatize eduction,” said Jen Mangrum, a UNC-Greensboro professor running for superintendent.

Both Mangrum and Michael Maher, an associate dean at N.C. State who is running for superintendent, said they plan to participate in the march.

“We must immediately address the needs of our teachers and students, including providing competitive wages for all public school employees; restoring school funding to pre-recession levels; and investing in the health and well being of our children by putting more counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers in our schools,” Maher said. “If teachers had a strong advocate in their corner, then they wouldn’t need to rally and march in protest.”

Keith Sutton, vice chairman of the Wake County school board and a candidate for superintendent, said he supports the goals of the march and it will be his “honor to stand with the North Carolina Association of Educators.”

“I also encourage local PTAs, community organizations, food-service providers, after-school programs and childcare facilities to work together, as they do on non-school days, to offer assistance to students in their local school districts,” Sutton said.

James Barrett, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member running for superintendent, said state lawmakers should act on the teachers’ requests before May 1 to avoid the need for the protest.

“It’s regrettable that seemingly the only way to get the legislature’s attention is to come hold a mass, in-person protest that results in districts needing to shut down schools for the day,” Barrett said.

Delegates at the NCAE annual convention voted Saturday to approve this year’s “day of action.”

This year’s march demands are:

Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other health professionals to meet national standards.

Provide a $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5 percent raise for all school employees and a 5 percent cost of living adjustment for retirees.

Expand Medicaid to improve the health of students and families.

Reinstate state retiree health benefits for teachers who will be hired after 2021.

Restore extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees such as a master’s degree.

“We have more work to do, but we listen to educators’ concerns and have been responding with efforts to raise teacher pay, provide state funding for school construction needs, reduce high-stakes testing, improve school safety efforts, and more,” Johnson said in the statement.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.