(Part two in a series of three stories on public education in Lee County)

At a time when the state’s governor has declared a ‘state of emergency’ for public schools, Lee County’s schools and its teachers face their own challenges

Editor’s Note: Teachers included in this story have asked us not to use their names out of concerns that their critical opinions could affect their employment status. The Rant has agreed to keep their names anonymous for this story.

By Billy Liggett and Richard Sullins

Jane has a masters degree in secondary education and has multiple years of experience under her belt teaching high school in Lee County, North Carolina. In her classroom, she’s well-respected and admired by her students, and her curriculum and research in her field has earned national recognition.

At home, she’s barely getting by.

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The average North Carolinian has a “personal consumption cost” of roughly $44,000 a year, which covers housing and utilities, health care, food, gas and energy and other personal expenses like medical bills, car maintenance and clothes. The average mortgage in the state is nearly $1,400 a month, and rent runs about $1,000 monthly. Those costs go up, of course, when the average person has a child or two.

Jane is a mother of two. With Lee County Schools, she makes $39,000 a year. Her take-home each month, after taxes, is less than $3,000. A recent dental cleaning cost her about 10 percent of her monthly take-home, and she had to forgo a $200 cavity filling so she could afford an inhaler prescription for her son.

In the last five years, her salary has gone up $4,000, or less than 10 percent. That doesn’t sound terrible, but consider that in just the last two years inflation in the U.S. has gone up more than 13 percent, and it’s easy to see why teachers are struggling and why many are fleeing the profession.

“Three years ago, it wasn’t easy, but I could live off of what I made,” Jane says. “Fast forward to the present, and I can barely make ends meet.”

In a 2022 CNBC study, North Carolina was named the No. 1 state in the U.S. for business, boasting the country’s strongest economy. Similar studies have had the Tar Heel State at or near the top for the past five years. Despite the good news, North Carolina currently ranks 32nd in the nation in average teacher pay. It ranks near the bottom nationally in beginning teacher pay.

In what some are calling a bold (or disastrous, depending on the side) political move in May, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper declared a “state of emergency” for public education in his state. The Democratic governor outlined what he called “extreme legislation” in the General Assembly that he says has “crippled” the state’s public education system. He pointed a finger at a “devastating school voucher scheme” that he says has poured billions of taxpayer money into private schools that don’t have to follow the same accountability standards as public schools and political “culture wars” in the classroom that “put politicians in charge of curriculum setting, micromanage what teachers can teach and target LGBTQ+ students.”

Lee County has felt the effects of both of those policies already (more on that later). The third issue contributing to the state’s emergency, according to Cooper, is the teacher shortage.

“We have more than 5,000 teacher vacancies in kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms, leaving tens of thousands of students without a qualified educator,” Cooper said. “Our students deserve good teachers, [but] Senate Republicans [have] proposed increasing veteran teachers’ salaries by just $250 spread over two years. This will cause North Carolina to continue to fall behind, pushing teachers out of our classrooms and leaving public school students without instruction.”

Cooper said he’s proposed an 18-percent raise over the next two years for the state’s teachers. State Republicans are calling his announcement a political stunt.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who announced in April he will run against Cooper in the next gubernatorial election, tweeted: “Once again, we see leaders in government telling you that they know what’s best for your child. Our governor has gone so far as to use the words ‘state of emergency’ as a political prop. However, words like this weren’t said when Democrats had control of the legislature and teachers were receiving pay cuts and being furloughed.”

Regardless of who’s at fault, North Carolina’s public education system isn’t doing all it can for students. The state ended 2022 with a $6 billion surplus, yet ranked 48th nationally in terms of per-pupil spending on education, earning it an “F” grade in education funding from the Education Law Center, a nonprofit advocate for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the U.S.

A recent report from UNC-Chapel Hill found that 16 percent of North Carolina teachers left the profession in 2022. The mid-year turnover rate jumped from 4 percent to 6 percent.

“The state senate’s proposal will only increase new or newer teachers’ salaries by a few hundred dollars a month, most of it going to taxes, with no extra pay for a master’s degree,” said Jane. “And for seasoned teachers, that’s maybe an average of $20 a month or nothing at all. Then you look at retirement for educators. By the time an educator retires, the salary they will earn in retirement is 30 percent less than what they earn while working.

“In this standard of living that we have here in North Carolina, it is not a living wage. Many have had to get part time jobs in order to make ends meet until social security works in.”

She said her department alone has lost or will lose several teachers because of pay. The turnover rate, she thinks, is a detriment to public school students.

“Students require consistency in order to be successful. Children in general require consistency in order to be successful and to thrive. This high turnover rate is causing a lack of consistency in education which in turn is affecting the fair and quality education of our students.”


The Funding Gap in Lee County

Despite the Lee County Board of Commissioners and the Lee County Board of Education becoming both majority Republican following the November 2022 elections, it is unclear whether the working relationship between the two bodies will improve when it comes to school funding.

As part of deliberations over the county’s operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Lee County received a request for just under $22 million in local funding from Lee County Schools, which is the largest independent agency receiving county support. This year’s ask from the school system represents a $2.3 million increase over its current funding level. Costs for personnel make up the largest increase in the district’s request, which includes a one-time $1,200 per full-time employee supplement (the county’s increase is separate from any state-approved raises) as a bridge to a new program that would be implemented in the 2024-25 budget.

This request also contains a proposal for a bus driver attendance bonus increase that is designed to attract more drivers and free up teacher assistants who are now having to take the wheel because of a shortage. Assistants currently receive a bonus of $2 a day and up to $40 per month for taking care of routes that would otherwise go unfilled. This year’s proposal would raise that amount to $10 per day, with a maximum of $200 per month.

Republican school board chair Sherry Lynn Womack said the district’s development of this year’s budget request was different from previous years in several respects.

“We stood up for our children. We stood up for our teachers. We’ve changed the calendar,” she said. “Lots of counties spoke about doing it, but then I got a phone call and found out that we are one of the few counties that actually made that decision and is moving forward.”

The county commissioners are in the process as of this writing of considering a $105 million-plus budget which contains just over $20.1 million in funding for county schools — an increase of just $523,500 over last year. The current iteration of the budget has nearly $2 million less going to public schools than what was requested.

Despite having a new right-wing Republican majority on the board of education, the budget presentation to the county commissioners in May did not go without moments of controversy. As Republican school board member and finance committee chairman Alan Rummel was concluding his presentation to the commissioners, Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe asked him about statements made last year when Rummel was a candidate for the board.

“Last fall, you came before us and urged us not to give the teachers anything in the way of an increase to their supplements,” Sharpe said at the time, referring to a public comment made by Rummel in 2022.

Rummel said last year’s request from the school board was presented as a way to compete with larger counties having a higher standard of living. This year’s request, he said, was different because it was based on the actual costs of living in Lee County and how they have grown over the past year, “a matter of local inflation.”

Sharpe asked Rummel whether the school board felt salary supplements should be linked to the performance of students on year-end test scores. As Rummel prepared to answer, Womack stepped in front of him and took over the microphone. Though Sharpe protested that his question had been directed at Rummel, Womack’s voice rose above his and carried a message of rebuke to the commissioner.

“To talk to this board member about something he said before he got on this board, I believe, is completely inappropriate,” she said.

Republican Commissioner Bill Carver, who serves as liaison to the school board, said he is supportive of this year’s request for increases in the teacher supplements, because the district’s leadership over the past couple of years had failed, in his view, to show interest in achievement and growth. His time this year spent observing the new school board gave him confidence, he said, that they would, in fact, pay attention to those critical factors.

Carver was publicly opposed to supplement increases in 2022, when the board was still majority Democratic.

His view now is that regrettable as it was, denying the school board’s requests for an increase in teacher supplements in previous years was the only tool available to the commissioners for gaining the attention of school leadership to the twin issues of achievement and growth.

School employees did not, however, have to go without receiving a boost to their supplements in fiscal years 2021-23 and 2022-23. The district office was able to identify federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds that provided bonuses to employees just before the holiday seasons in both years.

Access to those funds, though, is soon coming to an end. They must all be obligated by Sept. 30, 2024, and the board has been drawing down its allocation of COVID relief funding in recent months to pay for big ticket items that include, among other things, the costs for security upgrades at each of its 17 campuses.


Vouchers and Culture Wars

If North Carolina Republicans get their way, every family in the state who wants to send their child to a private school could receive some funding from the state. This voucher program, known as Opportunity Scholarships, could grow to as much as $500 million (it’s currently at $133 million) by the end of the decade, according to WRAL, and these scholarships would be available to both low-income and wealthy families.

It may surprise some to learn that the school that benefited most from the voucher program this past year was Sanford’s own Grace Christian School. Grace students received more than $2.2 million in state-funded scholarships in 2022-2023, raising debate among the left and right over whether taxpayers should be forced to fund religion-based education.

In his “state of emergency speech” in May, Gov. Cooper accused Republicans of trying to destroy public schools from within, “especially schools in rural and poorer counties” that will face “steep funding cuts, leaving them without the resources to maintain fixed costs and support students.”

And according to Cooper’s team, Lee County Schools would be among the top eight schools in the state most impacted by a budget that includes a voucher expansion. Lee County Schools would be among eight districts to see a 4 percent or greater decline in total state funding in 2026-2027. Northampton and Bertie counties would see the biggest cuts (8 and 7 percent, respectively), and nearby Cumberland County would lose 5 percent of its funding.

“Private schools do not have the capacity or resources to meet all of the needs of North Carolina students. They are not, by law, required to adhere to state standards,” said Jane. “Not that private schools do not have good teachers, I am certain that they do, [but] there is a risk that children would receive a subpar education due to lack of training and proper licensure. There is also the fact that most private schools are religious in nature, predominantly Christian, and therefore this grant expansion shows favoritism to a religious institution when we have so many different practicing faiths … so how will the children of those populations benefit from such a grant? They won’t.”

To counter that argument, the conservative John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Poll in January stated that two-thirds of likely North Carolina voters support the Opportunity Scholarship program. It said an even greater number (68.8 percent) support Education Savings Accounts, which provide families with funds to pay for expenses like tuition, tutoring and books/supplies.

Some fear the mixing of religion and education in public schools is already happening. Cooper said Republican leaders “want to inject their political culture wars into classrooms across North Carolina with bills that would put politicians in charge of curriculum setting, micromanage what teachers can teach, and target LGBTQ+ students.”

Recent policy changes in Lee County Schools like the new “Parents Bill of Rights” seem to do just that — requiring teachers to “out” students who express different gender identities by informing their parents. Another policy takes a decidedly pro-right stance by requiring faculty and staff to “remain neutral” on controversial topics and “present the information without bias.” The code suggests that topics like Critical Race Theory and negative aspects of American history will be off limits in local classrooms.

“All people deserve full credit and recognition for their struggles and accomplishments throughout United States history,” the policy reads. “The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined. No employee of Lee County Schools will make any attempt to discredit the efforts made by all people using foundational documents for reform.

“No fictional accounts or narratives shall be used to invalidate actual objective historical events.  All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.”

The wording mirrors similar policies passed in Florida, where the “Stop W.O.K.E.” act restricts how topics like race can be discussed in public schools. Other school districts across the nation are adopting similar policies, and several teachers and administrators who have fought back against such policies have lost their jobs. In Florida, a teacher was fired for hanging a Black Lives Matter flag over her door. A teacher in Missouri was let go for assigning a lesson on “privilege,” and a teacher in California was fired for questioning new policies on social media. On the flip side, a Kansas teacher was fired for refusing to use pronounces and denouncing Critical Race Theory, and a Massachusetts teacher was fired for posting a video that questioned CRT.

“John” — who also asked his name not be used to avoid controversy — said he teaches a class in Lee County that encourages discussion and debate on several topics, from current events to politics. While none of these discussions have led to concerns from students or their parents, he said the worry that something said in his classroom could lead to controversy is very real.

“I’m a teacher, and I’m here to teach. I’m not here to suggest any of my students should believe what I believe,” he said. “But I think hearing both sides of an issue makes us all more well-informed people. If we’re here to just teach a one-sided, state-mandated version of events, then nobody is really learning anything. Nobody is learning to think for themselves.”

Jane said the last few years have been difficult on teachers — from the pandemic that challenged them to keep their classrooms together and teach by any means necessary to the low pay and political worries, they’re the reasons many are leaving the profession. She worries she could one day soon follow them out the door.

“When I speak about my students to my family and friends, I call them my kids. I feel if I give up and leave, the others would win and that I would be giving up on my kids. I am doing my best to hold out, hope, and pray for as long as I possibly can but if educators can not be supported and paid equivalent to their skills and in relation to the cost of living, I may, and regretfully, will have to make that decision to find a different profession or move out of state. I refuse to ever teach false information, and I will not allow someone to take my place that would do so — which is also why I am hanging on.”