Sen. Berger meets with North Carolina protesters

Jun. 09, 2014 @ 10:19 PM

RALEIGH] — It was a Monday that ended with discussion instead of arrests at the North Carolina General Assembly, a relative rarity since Moral Monday protests began last year.

The Senate leader at the center of the protests, Sen. Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, sat down to talk with 13 protesters Monday evening who planned to stage a sit-in in his office.

The meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, is the first of its kind since Moral Monday rallies started at the legislature last year to protest GOP-written laws that have made changes to school reading testing and funding for teacher assistants. It also comes after two successive weeks of sit-ins and arrests of protesters at House Speaker Thom Tillis' office and Gov. Pat McCrory's office.

Berger and his staff pulled couches into a circle in the hallway outside his office on the second floor of the legislative building and sat down with the group, which included teachers and college students. The discussion was a mostly civil question-and-answer dialogue as members of the group questioned Berger on why he cut money for teacher assistants to fund pay raises for teachers and why he asked teachers to choose between tenure and a raise.

The protesters asked Berger to commit to schedule a public meeting with people concerned about education funding, to restore all funding for teacher assistants and remove a provision in his budget that tied teacher raises to their tenure.

"Show me where the money would come from," Berger said. He said he and other Republicans ran on a platform of not raising taxes.

"I don't think there's a fundamental difference in what our goals are," Berger said. "There are differences in how we achieve those goals...that doesn't mean your opinions aren't worth listening to."

Berger said he could not commit to specific policy outcomes but agreed to let protesters know by Tuesday if he could facilitate a meeting. The group thanked Berger for meeting with them and then left the building.

"I can't commit to something because it's not up to me," Berger said.

At the meeting, Berger handed out a 24-page amendment detailing the spending for 14-point policy agenda of the North Carolina NAACP, the architect of the Moral Monday rallies. He said no lawmaker in the Senate, Republican or Democrat had filed any bills asking for anything on the NAACP platform. It would cost billions to fund all the policies of the group, according to the amendment.

Bryan Proffitt, a protester and teacher in Durham and a leader in the discussion with Berger, said he is still not satisfied and pledged to return with more people if Berger doesn't follow through on his commitment to be in touch with protesters about a meeting.

"I won't be satisfied until my students have what they need and our schools aren't bleeding every day," he said. "That's when I'll be satisfied."