By Billy Liggett

To suggest that Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Smith has gone off the deep end and spouted off some tone deaf statements about public education isn’t necessarily “breaking news.”

This is the same man who suggested the local school district save money by just serving peanut butter and jelly at lunch to the kids whose families can’t afford a hot meal. The same man who called local high school students “tools for Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement.” The same man who accused local basketball players of “ignored federal law” for locking arms during the National Anthem. And the same man who voted against a program offering tuition-free community college to qualifying students in and around Lee County.

But a recent email where Smith suggested the county should increase teacher supplements because of the school district’s performance on North Carolina School Report Cards (last updated in 2019 and skipped in 2020 because of the pandemic) is perhaps the chairman’s most ill-informed statement on education to date.

And that’s saying something.

In his April 23 email, forwarded to The Rant in May, Smith wrote that he “discovered” Lee County has the 14th highest teacher supplement in the state, out of 115 separate school districts, with $4,586 going to teachers in addition to their salaries set by the state (updated numbers show Lee County teachers now earn $4,626 in supplements, which ranks 15th in the state). He then wrote the district’s performance on the N.C. School Report Cards — designed to grade schools on student performance and academic growth — is “not reflective” of the money the district is paying its teachers.

Just another half-cocked rant from a local Republican, you might say? True, but Smith’s words are significant, because it’s our commissioners who hold the purse strings for school funding.

“In light of the rather mediocre performance, I really don’t see the need to increase the supplement,” Smith wrote. “I suggest we keep it at the current rate allowing the schools to work on improving their performance.”

I’ll begin by saying that if the county decided to freeze supplements at the current rate, so be it. It’s true — Lee County currently pays better than most districts. But it has to. That $4,600-plus might look good in the eastern or wester part of the state, but teachers in our surrounding counties are getting more (Wake County at nearly $9,000, Orange County at more than $8,000, and Chatham County at $6,400). Moore and Harnett counties aren’t terribly far behind us, and Harnett nearly doubled its supplements in 2018 to stay competitive.

Where Smith veers way off the tracks is his suggestion that school report cards should be the deciding factor in whether or not our teachers get a supplement bump. After his big “discovery,” had he dug deeper, he would have learned that even the best teachers in our region are doomed to fail in North Carolina’s current grading system and that the
No. 1 deciding factor in a district’s performance is NOT whether our teachers are earning their keep, but rather the economic status of our students.

According to the state’s grades, in Lee County only Lee Early College has an A rating, and only Tramway Elementary School has a B. Several schools have a C, and two of our three middle schools have a D. Nine of our schools met or exceeded academic growth, and three did not.

But the most important number Smith left out of his email is this one: 66.8.

It’s not another grade, but the percentage of students in Lee County who are economically disadvantaged. And according to the Public Schools Forum of North Carolina — which bills itself as a “nonpartisan champion of better schools” — of the state’s 325 schools that serve at least 85 percent low-income students, none of them received an A or a B grade. Yet, of the 222 schools serving fewer than 25 percent low-income students, none received an F, one received a D and nearly 90 percent got an A or a B.

Lee County leans more toward the former group. The district has one school — W.B. Wicker Elementary — that serves more than 80 percent low-income students, and the other elementary schools all serve between 60 and 80 percent.

The county’s top-performing elementary school, Tramway (which earned a B), is the only school in the district below the state average for economically disadvantaged students with 39.7% (the state average is 43.4%). The one A (Lee Early College) is right at 48%.

The Public Schools Forum sums it up nicely: “What would you think if state legislators created a new A-F school grading system based on poverty, giving A’s and B’s to the schools that serve the fewest poor students while tagging the highest-poverty schools with D’s and F’s? Unfortunately, the current grading scheme produces the same result.”

And under the current scale, if little Amy started the fourth-grade with a first-grade math level and ended the fourth grade with a third-grade math level, she’d still be deemed a “failure,” despite her growth.

Of course Lee County has great teachers. I have three children in elementary school this year, and I’ve seen teachers cry for joy at my daughter’s academic triumphs, I’ve seen them take my son aside in their free time to monitor his speech, and I’ve seen them spend their mornings talking sports with my youngest because they know and care about his interests. I also understand their frustrations when the children they teach aren’t getting the support from home they need to keep up with their peers. It’s not all on teachers.

Tying teacher pay to these outlying factors that our teacher have zero control over is not only unfair, it’s insulting. If you don’t want to pay them more, fine. But don’t threaten their pay. Find out what teachers need and make it happen.

And, really … an extra $4,626 over a year is nice, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as you’d think.

Smith’s email is void of depth and research. Rather, it’s another dog whistle for the anti-tax, pro school-choice crowd that is quick to point out the education system’s shortcomings but reluctant to really do anything about it.

Not only does Smith want to feed most of our kids peanut butter and jelly, he wants to make it damn near impossible to bring in teachers and keep teachers who want to help them succeed.


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