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Wednesday, 16 September 2015 13:58

Macon educators rally for more state funding

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fr maconeducatorsThe state budget was 78 days overdue last Tuesday night when a group of more than 20 public education supporters packed the Macon County commissioners meeting in support of more state funding.

They were all donned in black shirts that read, “We love public schools,” and wanted commissioners to pass a resolution asking the North Carolina General Assembly to either restore education funding back to the 2007-08 levels or support the proposed 2015-16 House budget instead of the proposed Senate budget. 

Commissioners chose not to act on the resolution because they weren’t convinced it would do any good with a budget so close to being passed. Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Macon County commissioners had been vocally opposed to many of the cuts to public education and would continue to lobby hard for funding whether commissioners chose to pass a resolution or not. 

“We could do a resolution all day but I’m not sure if it would help or hurt,” said Beale. “But they (legislators) certainly know how we as a county feel about it.”

 

Budget moves forward

Even if the board adopted such a resolution, it would have been a moot point by the time it made it to legislators in Raleigh. The House and the Senate reached a compromise on the budget less than a week later. 

John deVille, legislative director of the Western North Carolina NCAE (North Carolina Association of Educators), led the group of education supporters at the commission meeting. He outlined proposed education cuts in a 61-slide presentation to commissioners and explained how the House budget would be the lesser of two evils. The budget proposal from the House would keep 8,500 teacher assistants, fund textbooks at $48.3 million, keep drivers’ education funding and keep teacher and state employee pensions and health benefits.

On the other hand, the Senate proposed cutting 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years, funding textbooks at $29 million, eliminating drivers’ education funding, eliminating teacher and state employee pensions for new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2016, and passing the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. The constitutional amendment would limit state spending, which deVille said could lead to an additional $800 million to $1 billion less revenue for public education. 

deVille was pleased to hear Macon commissioners agreed public education couldn’t stand any more cuts, but he was disappointed that the board would not pass the resolution. 

“I was happy to hear they agreed with everything, but since they did agree with everything I’m somewhat perplexed and confused as to why they didn’t go ahead and pass the resolution,” he said. 

Even though a budget agreement was already agreed upon, deVille said the tug of war over public education funding was far from over and local governments will be in the same predicament during next year’s budget process. That being said, he said the compromised budget agreement isn’t as bad as it could be. 

“I think given the landscape of what seems feasible, 80 percent of the budget is OK,” deVille said. “My biggest concern is at this point they haven’t announced anything specific for digital support or textbooks. The House has already caved to the Senate on several points so I think it will be fairly close to Senate numbers so that’s disappointing.”

The positives include keeping funding for drivers’ education, retaining the current teacher assistants, $750 bonuses for all teachers and no changes to pension benefits. 

Macon County leaders were also hoping Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, would be able to push through a bill to provide additional state funding for the state’s three remaining K-12 schools — two of which are located in Macon County. 

However, Davis confirmed Tuesday that the additional funding didn’t make it into the budget. 

“I got it through the Senate but the Senate pro tem couldn’t get the House to go along with it,” Davis said. “It costs thousands per student more to run those schools. This bill would have provided a million — maybe $1.5 million more a year to help. It wouldn’t have made them whole but they would have been satisfied with just part of that money.”

 

Teachers speak out

Educators took the opportunity at the commissioner meeting to tell the board how the budget cuts have impacted their schools. 

Rena Sutton, a guidance counselor at South Macon Elementary School, said the cuts have gotten so bad that they were creating safety issues. Fewer personnel — including teacher assistants and school nurses — create safety concerns in the classrooms, playgrounds and during student pick-up and drop-off times. 

“Teachers can’t even go to the bathroom because they have no one to help watch their class,” she said. She added that cuts to drivers’ education would not only put student drivers at risk, but would result in higher insurance rates for all North Carolina residents. 

Mary Price, a guidance counselor at Iotla Valley Elementary School, said the state mandated student evaluations and test requirements for kindergarten through sixth grade take a lot of time and manpower that the schools just don’t have right now. She said it was getting more difficult to find someone to cover a teacher’s classroom while he or she completes the individual evaluations. 

“These cuts are desperately hurting our schools,” said first-grade teacher Melissa Faetz. “I can’t read individually with my students. I’m not able to give them individual instruction. It’s an impossible job — I’ve got 20 children in my classroom who all deserve individual instruction.”

Commissioners said they were happy to see so many people attend the meeting to support public education, but Chairman Kevin Corbin told the crowd they weren’t telling them anything they didn’t already know.

“With all due respect, you’re all preaching to the choir,” Corbin said after hearing a few minutes of public input from local teachers. “Macon County is 18th in North Carolina for educational expenditures.”

deVille clarified that Macon County has definitely done its part in funding public education locally and has even gone above and beyond its responsibility to fund school infrastructure as state cuts keep coming down the pipe. 

“We’re asking you to go one more step and ask the General Assembly — to ask the Senate to match what the House has suggested for public education spending,” he said at the Tuesday meeting.  

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