What began as a small meeting with curious teachers ballooned into quite the forum for North Carolina Senator Jim Davis who represents Macon County and seven other WNC counties in the state's legislature.
Davis met with a room full of teachers, teachers' aids, and other school personnel at South Macon Elementary School on Tuesday afternoon at the personal invitation of the educators.
Since Governor Pat McCrory assumed office in early January 2013, the state's education system has begun to see a major overhaul being launched by the legislature who at the moment sits at a veto proof Republican majority.
Davis, who is one of the 31 Senate Republicans, attended the meeting in hopes of clearing the air about his history of supporting the changes being implemented by the state such as ending tenure for veteran teachers, cutting a salary bump for earning a master's degree (becoming the first state in the U.S.), and eliminated a cap on class size — all issues that came up from the 40-plus attendees.
“Those teachers are my constituents,” Davis said on his way back to Raleigh on Wednesday. “I'll always meet with them, I'm going to hear their concerns. It may not always be according to their schedule, but I will meet with them.”
As a result of the willingness to meet, most, if not all of the attendees who spoke up to share their concern, thanked Davis for his presence. A major talking point came with the legislature's decision to cut funds to pay for the recently proposed pay hike, leading to the dismissal of many of the teacher aids at local schools.
“Just as an example, last week I held a bleeding nose of one student while teaching a math lesson to the other students,” third grade teacher Angie Phillips told the senator. “This is something that an aid could have helped me on.”
Another teacher explained that with the way aids were scheduled currently, she was lucky if she had 40 minutes a day with help at the elementary school where she works.
One of the aids, Kim Ledford, who's employment wasn't trimmed spoke up on behalf of her role in the educational landscape.
“We're here to help these children. They are the ones that are hurting. We'll make it, but these children need help. If you come in and cut assistants and cut other money to give teachers raises, what do you save? Nothing. You're not saving anything. There's not a teacher here that wants to see me walk out this door so they can get an 11 percent raise,” she said as the other attendees gave her a round of applause.
But with debt ballooning on a statewide level, Davis pointed to expenses beyond education as a reason for the inevitable cuts.
“You can't discuss education without discussing the whole budget,” said Davis. “Medicaid has gone up $2 billion. Medicaid is driving our budget. So it's difficult for us to have money to invest in other things when we are hostages to Medicaid. It has twice what education has and it's not because we want it to.”
The topic of tenure frequently came up as well. Tenure is a senior academic's contractual right not to have his or her position terminated without a just cause, however, opponents say that it often leads to ineffective teachers continuing to hold on to their jobs.
N.C. lawmakers recently moved to revoke tenure and instead offer teachers raises for giving it up. A move that, upon observation of the crowd at Tuesday's gathering, appeared to be an unpopular one.
Touching on the issue, teacher John deVille described a situation when dealing with a former superior that could have ended in his termination if not for his tenure status when the person being described floated an idea that was disagreed upon.
“I thought it was a terrible idea,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether it was a good or bad idea, but I had a different perspective than my superior and he didn't like it. The man tries to involuntarily transfer one of the top teachers in the state for reasons that are still hazy and I advocated for that woman and if it had not been for my attorney and my tenure status, I would not be working for Macon County Schools. We don't have the salary and we don't have the cultural support like we used to, but one thing that we do have is that guaranteed due process.”
The future of tenure is still very much at issue since a Superior Court judged ruled that tenure is a property right, thus blocking the revocation for now, but as Davis pointed out, there are educators out there who support doing away with tenure.
“In a recent survey some 45 percent of NC educators didn’t have a problem with getting rid of it,” Davis said.
As the meeting wound down, Davis closed out the session by thanking those who came.
“There are some problems that need to be addressed in our educational system. The fact of the matter is, I am passionate about education. Besides my parents, teachers have had the biggest impact on my life. K-12 education makes up 38 percent of the budget, but I'm not an expert on the needs. We have to work with the people on the ground floor, the people that know the most about what works and what doesn't,” he said.
Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin thinks the meeting was productive. “I would like to thank Senator Davis for taking the time to meet with our teachers,” said Baldwin. “ I am confident that Senator Davis heard the teachers and their concerns. I believe him when he says that he will have conversations with his colleagues about what he heard.”
N.C. Senator Jim Davis met for a question and answer session at South Macon Elementary School at the personal invitation of the teachers.
A Macon County teacher ticks off her grievances for N.C. Sen. Jim Davis at Tuesday’s forum. Photos by Travis Tallent
Franklin High School teacher John deVille relayed an incident at the impromptu forum in which he could have lost his job if not for his tenure.
Frances Seay, kindergarten teacher at South Macon, makes a point at the forum on Tuesday.