The site is a training center for cadres of public school teachers from around the state. It has been written out of the N.C. Senate and governor’s budget, and, along with it, its 35 or so remaining employees at its campus in Cullowhee.
When NCCAT took a funding cut two years ago it was forced to lay off about half of its staff. Executive Director Elaine Franklin said she has been honest with her workers this time around that the threat of joblessness in the near future is very real.
“You don’t do any good sugarcoating these things or offering false hopes,” Franklin said
“They’re all really worried, and I am, too.”
The only hope for the center is if the N.C. House fights to keep its $3.1 million in state funding. That money is used to run two centers — the one in Cullowhee and a smaller one on Ocracoke Island with 10 employees.
If the center closes it will mark the end of its nearly 30-year tenure in Cullowhee and the close of a program that once gained national and international acclaim as a model for professional development for teachers. Approximately 60,000 teachers have participated in NCCAT’s professional development and training over the years, and more than 100,000 education professionals have used the facility for conferences and retreats.
Franklin is hoping she can convey to legislators that now is not the time to cut funding for professional development — not with student achievement standards in flux and technology rapidly changing the classroom.
“We are working hard to educate the people in-house,” Franklin said. “That’s where our attention and efforts are focused.”
The center also does outreach to first-year teachers in poorer areas of the state to teach them classroom management skills and keep them from falling victim to high teacher turnover rates. The Senate’s budget also does away with a fellows program that entices top students into teaching careers with scholarships.
But NCCAT has been criticized by fiscal conservatives as too luxurious. Why do teachers need to attend an all-expense paid, multi-day training conference in the mountains with overnight lodging and meals full funded in order to become better teachers?
And with dwindling resources for education, some lawmakers have questioned if the funds shouldn’t be shifted to core functions, or whether it would be cheaper to bring training to the teachers rather than teachers to the training.
N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he doesn’t like how the Republican-controlled state government is approaching education — including the shuttering of NCCAT — this budget cycle.
“These programs weren’t just about adequacy but excellency in the classroom,” Queen said. “It’s not about being the cheapest system in the country — it’s about being the best system in the country.”
Queen is a co-sponsor of an appropriations bill that would keep funding for NCCAT. He said his cause has some bipartisan support. Nevertheless, he was disappointed in the budgetary news from the Senate.
“I have not lost it yet, but the Senate has been no help,” Queen said. “We are in dire straits.”
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said his constituents would certainly feel the blow of job losses should NCCAT be shut.
“The Senate did cut it out of the budget, and it was really disappointing,” Davis said. “To me that’s about 40 jobs near Cullowhee.”
Nevertheless, Davis voted for the Senate’s budget that excluded funding for NCCAT, but said he lobbied the chairman of the education budget committee and the president pro tem of the Senate during the budget process to keep it funded.
“I voted for the budget but advocated for them during budget process,” Davis said. “I was disappointed because it was a really good program and I believe once we lose that campus we won’t be able to put that back together.”
Although the program rounds out its annual budget with private donations, grants and contract fees, they only make up 20 percent of its funding and thus aren’t sufficient to continue operations without the state aid.
What will happen to NCCAT’s campus?
If funding is lost for the program, NCCAT’s campus will be handed over to Western Carolina University. In 1985, NCCAT was built on property once belonging to WCU.
It seemed to fit with WCU’s mission as one of the state’s renowned teaching colleges.
As a stipulation of the deed, the university will get its land back if NCCAT ceases to exist.
WCU isn’t exactly cheering over its inheritance of the NCCAT site. It sits on 36 acres in Cullowhee and includes two residence halls and a large conference building with meeting rooms, an amphitheater, dining facilities, a technology lab, a library and a wellness center.
WCU has not been given a budget increase to take over of maintenance or upkeep of the NCCAT campus or its buildings, said Robert Edwards, WCU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance. He estimates the center will cost an additional $200,000 to $300,000 in maintenance, upkeep and utilities. That is money that, unless provided for in the state’s budget, the school will have to swallow.
Nonetheless, Edwards said the facility and its surrounding acreage across the road would be a welcome addition to the campus, maybe serving as a conference center. Yet, Edwards said it would also be better news to keep NCCAT.
“Western has always been supportive of NCCAT.” Edwards said. “It ties in directly to the strong education department at Western.”