Across the state, teachers play hooky
RALEIGH — North Carolina public school teachers upset about higher workloads, falling buying power and lost job security risked their jobs by skipping work Monday, while other educators invited parents and elected officials to discuss concerns after classes.
Some teachers called in sick or otherwise took the day off to demonstrate outside the state Capitol building in Raleigh. State law bans strikes or work stoppages by public employees.
At other schools, teachers started the day carrying protest signs before classes. Teachers and their supporters at schools in Charlotte, Durham, Graham, Raleigh, Wilmington and Statesville demonstrated their complaints with signs captured on photos posted on social media. Parents and elected officials were invited to walk into the schools at the end of the academic day to discuss educators' concerns and complaints.
The unusual activism of walk-outs and alternative "walk-ins" was organized on social media to protest decisions by state lawmakers. Teachers complain recent legislative decisions hurt them professionally and financially in a state that already offers some of the country's lowest salaries.
At the Raleigh intersection where the state Capitol meets downtown's main street, about two dozen educators waved signs as passing motorists occasionally honked horns in support. Anca Stefan, 27, said she called in sick to her job teaching language arts and social studies at Durham's Lakewood Montessori Middle School to demonstrate against the mounting troubles.
"It's the only thing we have left. We have called representatives. We have signed petitions. We have voted for people who said that they support education. And nothing has come of it. This is all we have left and we're at our limit," Stefan said. "This is not going to be the only protest. It can't be."
Despite six years working in Durham Public Schools, Stefan said the lack of pay raises mean her annual salary of about $31,000 isn't enough for her family. The county's average annual wage is more than double Stefan's pay, according to the state Commerce Department.
Teachers have received one across-the-board pay raise in the past five years — a 1.2 percent bump last year — as lawmakers coped with pinched state revenues or shifted money to other priorities.
"Reality hits that you need to own a house and have a family and it's not sustainable. I'm a mom now. I wasn't when I started this career. My husband pays for all of our groceries so it's a really humiliating position to be in as a working adult who works really hard," Stefan said.
Besides the low pay, teachers complain the Legislature's changes mean they are losing job security and extra pay for earning graduate degrees, are getting less classroom help with small children, and coping with larger class sizes.
Timothy McNamara said he also took a sick day to protest his inability to afford a house or start a family on his salary, which is losing buying power every year due to inflation.
"What is my incentive as a professional to stay here any longer? I haven't been able to do any of the things I would have expected to do by the age of 31, and I've committed eight years to teaching," said McNamara, who teaches English at Durham's Middle College High School. "I didn't come into teaching to make money. I did expect to get a cost-of-living increase that was fair and equitable."
Republicans who control the General Assembly and governor's mansion counter that school reform plans they adopted in the past two years increase accountability demanded of teachers and students, improves financial responsibility, and expands the ability of parents to move their children into charter or even private schools.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, a chief advocate of the changes, said Monday the protests are wrong.
"We appreciate the overwhelming majority of our teachers whose hard work and commitment are vital to the success of our children. And we appreciate the right of North Carolinians to exercise their first amendment rights, and welcome a productive dialogue," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "There is a time and place for everything; our schools are not the place for politics and our children should not be the pawns."