Fight for increased education funding comes to Lee County

Pro-teacher petitions now up to 61,000 signatures
Jun. 18, 2014 @ 05:36 PM

Lee County teachers were notably absent from a rally in Sanford on Wednesday to demand better pay for teachers.

It wasn't because they were all on vacation. The reason, according to the only teacher who did attend, was actually quite full of irony: Many local teachers were at a mandatory, yet unpaid, training session.

Callie Hammond, a 17-year veteran of Bragg Street Academy, didn't have to attend that training. So she joined about 10 other protesters outside the Lee County Courthouse for the gathering Wednesday morning, part of a tour across North Carolina before organizers present their petitions to the General Assembly today.

The petitions, in favor of better funding for public education and educators, gained 61,000 signatures. Gerrick Brenner,  executive director of liberal group Progress N.C. and the organizer of Wednesday's event, said it's rare to even get 10,000 signatures. Getting six times that number, he said, shows how passionate people are about the subject.

"We wouldn't collect 61,000 signatures if this was just about the teachers," Brenner said. "This is about a broad attack on public education."

Hammond said there are many ways she thinks teachers and schools are being victimized. She frequently buys her own classroom supplies because the school can't afford them, Hammond said, and has lately found herself at other schools begging for extra textbooks because her own students don't have enough. The state recently slashed textbook funding from $68 per student to $14.

And last year, she said, one Bragg Street teacher got called away for a month for military duties. The school wasn't able to hire a substitute, Hammond said, so the remaining teachers just had to take turns teaching his class for that month.

Then there's salary. North Carolina recently dropped from 46th to 47th in the nation in average teacher pay. Hammond said she's actually earning less than she was five years ago because the state no longer pays veteran teachers for mentoring younger ones. She still does the extra mentoring work, just for free.

"All I'm doing is waiting for my kids to graduate, and then I am out of here," Hammond, the mother of two teenagers, said. "I have lived in North Carolina all my life, but I can't wait to get out."

With a master's degree and National Board Certification, she said she has turned down significantly higher-paying job offers to teach in other states. She didn't want to yank her kids out of school here.

Brenner said North Carolina can't afford to continue losing educators to higher-paying states. And although the N.C. Senate and House have plans to raise teacher pay — the Senate by firing half of the state's teaching assistants and the House by trying to get people to buy more lottery tickets — Brenner said neither plan is acceptable.

He said the state must reverse course on recent tax reforms that lowered the personal and corporate income tax rates.

"You should start by repealing reckless tax cuts for corporations," Brenner said. "... Who benefits most from these tax cuts? The 1 percent, the corporations, received two-thirds of the benefit."

He said most statewide politicians have shown a "total disconnect" from reality, not to mention public opinion, when it comes to education. One Broadway woman who attended Wednesday's event, Gayle Gray, agreed. She said politicians who suggest firing teaching assistants should realize that parents simply can't pick up the slack by volunteering like they used to.

"The world we live in now is very different from when [Gov. Pat] McCrory was in school," Gray said. "People are working and can't get off to go volunteer."

Gray is retired and volunteers at Broadway Elementary School's media center, she said. She also has a daughter who used to work as a teaching assistant, and she broke down crying when talking about the possibility that the state might cut every second- and third-grade assistant next year.

Brenner said people everywhere his tour has gone have had strong reactions. He said he wants people to spread their passion and get their friends and neighbors talking as well.

"But what we really want to do is encourage teachers to speak out," Brenner said. "Because people trust teachers, often more than the people they vote for."