A forum to discuss educational issues hosted by Senator Dan Soucek (R-45) Thursday, Dec. 6 at the Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department was marked by contentious exchanges, occasional boos and finished with an audience member being escorted out of the meeting.
The assembled bipartisan panel included educators and parents from Ashe and Watauga counties. Phil Howell, Ashe County Director of Secondary Education and Accountability, David Blackburn, Ashe County Principal of the Year, and parent and educator Dr. Ann Margaret Wright were the Ashe representatives on the panel.
Soucek asked panelist Darcy Grimes, a teacher at Valle Crucis school and last year’s North Carolina teacher of the year the first question of the evening.
Grimes expressed concern over North Carolina’s rank of 46 in teacher pay.
“I’m very concerned and the future for our students and our teachers,” she said. “If something doesn’t change, it’s going to effect a generation.”
Soucek said that he felt North Carolina teachers were underpaid, but he was against across the board raises for educators.
“That goes towards the idea of rewarding everyone equally when not every teacher is equal,” Soucek said.
Instead, Soucek suggested having rewards for teaching advanced and difficult classes.
Watauga County Teacher of the Year Katie Matthews questioned how a new law requiring that 25 percent of teachers be rewarded bonuses and a four-year contract should be interpreted by local boards of education.
Soucek said that the legislature was not able to establish a merit system and ultimately left much of the discretion up to the local school boards.
Under the new legislation there will no longer be supplemental pay for teachers with a master’s degree or higher.
Howell spoke to the effect on Ashe County, saying without a clear system of implementing the bonuses, “the damage done to the morale of teachers and the instructional fallout that will happen from children [will be] a detriment to the state of North Carolina.”
“This is one of the most undermining moves that I’ve seen concerning teachers in North Carolina,” Howell said.
In response, much of the audience applauded and cheered.
“In the end, no one is worse off, but some people are better off, and I think that’s a good direction,” Soucek said.
Some of the crowd disagreed and broke out into chants of “Wrong, wrong.”
“It’s really important for me to have a building full of teachers that are working together towards a common goal and there’s no way that this legislation is going to allow that to happen in my school building,” Howell said.
Assessment discussion draws strong audience reaction
The issue of student assessments also raised concerns from many of the panelists and audience members. One question submitted from the audience asked what the justification for constantly increasing assessment hours and decreasing instruction hours would be.
Howell, who oversees the administering of student assessments in Ashe County, said it concerns him that “before the dust can settle” from administering the newly enacted state assessments, schools are expected to enter the national testing standards.
Soucek acknowledged that assessments are “not something that I think we’re in a good place with,” calling the constant changes “a burden and a detriment to learning.”
He spoke anecdotally about a fourth grade teacher he heard from regarding the long list of assessments that she is required by the state to give her students.
A teacher from the audience who stood to assert that there are too many hours in the third grade curriculum devoted to assessments was escorted out of the meeting by an on-duty sheriff’s deputy.
“My goal is to get as much information out in a limited time, which was why we chose this forum,” Soucek said.
When reached for further comment as to why the forum, which was open to the public, could not be recorded, Soucek said, “I felt it created an environment that allowed the panelist to feel safe to engage in a more open, honest and robust conversation.”
The education funding debate
Soucek said while education was the General Assembly’s top priority with 55 percent of the state budget devoted towards schools, it’s not their only priority.
“We can’t just spend like drunken sailors in good times and then have to cut off our teachers and state employees and every area of business in bad times,” Soucek said.
Funding was brought up again later in the panel when Soucek was asked why he voted against continuing the temporary 1 percent sales tax increase that was put into place in 2009.
“We promised that we were going to balance the budget without raising taxes and that’s raising taxes,” Soucek said. “It was put in place with the promise that it would expire. We actually kept other people’s promises. It was part of the fiscal responsibility that we committed to bring to the economy.”
While Soucek received some nods and cheers of agreement throughout the panel, other members of the audience and panel, including Grimes, felt that they were leaving without all of the information that they had hoped to receive.
“I don’t think all of the questions that were asked tonight were answered by any means,” Grimes said.
She expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to have the discussion and said, “We’re going to continue to fight for education because we’re here for the students…we’re going to keep asking the questions until we get the answers.”