“We are in a crisis situation in Macon County,” said moderator and retired teacher Joan Maki. “We can’t seem to get that across to people. I don’t want to think parents don’t care, and I wish this auditorium was full tonight with parents, but we need more community involvement in the schools.”
Hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Macon County Democratic Party, the Nov. 14 parent-teacher-community education forum, “A Reality Check — The State of our Schools,” included remarks from teachers and administration alike. The emphasis was on new state legislative changes out of Raleigh whose ripple effect will be felt across the state.
“Community support and attitudes tell me the education system isn’t broken in Macon County — North Carolina schools aren’t broken,” said Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “These are strong institutions working harder to get better and improve. Our students deserve the best resources and best teachers we can provide.”
The most with the least
Under the new state legislation, school districts will eliminate tenure, or “due process” for possible job termination. This in turn leaves superintendents in charge of recommending bonuses for the top 25 percent of teachers. These $5,000 bonuses will be dispensed throughout the course of four years. Recommended teachers will ultimately have to give up their tenure rights in exchange for the money and a new four-year contract.
“What really gets me is that we teachers would get together and talk about what’s best for the kids, but now do we share our lesson plans? It’s about competition and not about the children anymore,” said Darlene McDowell, a social studies teacher at Macon Middle School.
“We’re turning teachers against teachers,” added Melissa Faetz, a first-grade teacher at South Macon Elementary. “Do I share my lesson plans? My books? My resources? We’re better when we work as a team. I can’t imagine what would happen with this 25 percent selection. This environment is so unhealthy for our children.”
Over the last five years, many directives from the General Assembly have affected the state’s schools and teachers. Between teachers losing their payroll deduction for North Carolina Association of Educators dues, a lack of raises, cuts to teacher assistants and decreasing the student-teacher classroom ratios, the educational system is under increased pressures.
“I don’t believe anybody is crying for a raise. Times are tough, and we understand what it is to share in the sacrifice when a sacrifice is called for,” said Dan Kowal, an ESL teacher at South Macon Elementary. “But, we’re stealing from our children, stealing from our future, with these cuts.”
Kowal’s words echoed throughout the nearly empty auditorium. The 30 people who attended were mostly fellow educators and their supporters. An earlier forum on the same subject attracted a much larger crowd, said Baldwin.
“The state is setting us up to fail,” Kowal said. “They give us more responsibility, but few resources are available. We believe in fairness and we try to teach our children fairness.”
Kowal pointed out how the number one employer in Macon County is the school system. With more than 20 percent of the annual school budget supplemented by the county commissioners, Kowal pondered what may happen as the years roll along and the funding gap grows.
“What is our community going to look like in five or 10 years if we keep making these cuts? The county can’t and won’t keep up,” he said. “If the state continues these cuts and layoffs, what will happen to our tax base, our police and fire departments? I’m guessing even if people don’t have children in our schools, they still want their homes protected, and that these kids someday become productive members of the community.”
On the front lines
Throughout the forum, classroom battle stories emerged. Voices piped up with tales of overcrowded classrooms, falling test scores due to lack of teacher assistants, and even an account of literally not having any textbooks to instruct students.
“I have 28 seventh-graders with no textbooks and limited supplies,” McDowell said. “If we don’t have the materials to teach, that money and those resources, then there will be a lot of kids that will fall by the wayside.”
A couple seats down on the dais, Darlene Fromknecht, an exceptional children’s teacher at East Franklin Elementary, read aloud messages sent to her from concerned teachers around the district.
“I am broke all the time, have to work two jobs and summer jobs,” one message stated. “I need help in the classroom. We have more behavior problems and less learning, which means we’re not able to meet the students needs.”
“Everything else in the world is going up and I have yet to get a pay raise and be able to start a family,” another statement read.
Numerous speakers pointed out the importance of the STAR reading and math programs, both of which have been assets to educators but have lost funding as of this year.
“STAR reading and math are extremely important in terms of looking at a baseline, a progress monitor and moving students forward,” Kowals said. “It’s extremely affective in tracking out students and now it’s gone.”
South Macon Elementary Principal Tolly Bowles echoed similar sentiments.
“Raising the bar isn’t an issue, we all want to raise the bar, but when the state raises the bar, then lowers the resources, it’s a hard climb up that mountain,” he said.
Following the speakers, Franklin High School teacher John deVille gave an extended powerpoint slideshow explaining the slow decline in state and national education standards and resources. He showed economic and geographic factors involved in the deterioration of the American school system. But, he concluded, it comes down to organization on a local level in regards of creating change.
“Why aren’t there more people here tonight? It’s not that they don’t care. I think they’re worn out, too tired, working too hard, don’t have the emotional or physical energy to be here,” he said. “There has been a war on the working middle class the last 30 years and it’s accelerating.”
When the floor opened up to the audience, a solemn quiet reverberated through the room. Asked if there was any opposition ready to present their comments to the forum, not a single voice or person emerged. The energy of the crowd seemed to side with those onstage. Soon, one by one, members of the community stood up in solidarity with the educators and administration.
“The teachers at these schools are wonderful. They care, but they need help,” said Franklin resident and school volunteer Selma Sparks. “You need to get something going. Talk to everybody, let them know — these are your children, this is your tomorrow. You’ve got to get out there, something needs to be done.”
Maki said local state representatives Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, were invited to the forum.
“They say they’re big supporters of education, but where are they tonight? I’d love to see their thoughts on this presentation,” said Franklin resident Dr. Ed Morris.
“Teaching is a profession like a lawyer, a doctor or business tycoon,” said Franklin resident Shirley Ches. “This is a profession these people are passionate about, and they deserve the best.”
Baldwin ended the forum by thanking everyone in attendance and proclaiming that those who work in public education will push forward.
“Public education isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a bi-partisan issue. We need to get the message out,” he said. “I refuse to believe that public education is dead.”