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Teachers playing long game with rally

May 17th, 2018

— “Remember, remember, we vote in November,” waves of teachers roared Wednesday as they descended on the Legislative Building to press state lawmakers for more education spending.

The throngs of teachers in red T-shirts carried signs criticizing North Carolina’s position of 37th nationally in teacher pay and 39th in spending per student, and they then waited for hours for a chance to speak directly to their local senators and representatives to persuade them to improve those rankings, starting with the upcoming state budget.

Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday that they have agreed to an average 6.2 percent raise for teachers in the 2018-19 budget, but they balked at Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal to freeze planned cuts to the corporate and individual income tax rates to free up sn extra $110 million for schools.

Still, some GOP lawmakers said Wednesday there might be room in the budget to address some of the teachers’ other concerns.

“The budget’s not done yet,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said. “Some things are still up for negotiation, so we’ll see what happens.”

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Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said improving school safety, for example, will be one item that lawmakers plan to work into the budget. That would include money to hire more school counselors and nurses.

“Teachers aren’t the only people we have to address,” McGrady said. “We’ve got to look at principals, bus drivers. There are a lot of pieces.”

Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, also noted that one of the themes of the teacher rally, the deteriorating condition of schools and classrooms, is supposed to be addressed by counties and not state lawmakers.

“I’ve got teachers in my family who I talk to all the time, so I’m well aware of their concerns,” Stevens said.

But Democrats said much of the budget appears to be set and that the teachers’ show of force was aimed less at moving the budget needle in the next six weeks than about flipping control of the legislature in six months.

“This is about November,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, who marched with Durham Public Schools teachers through downtown and wore a red shirt emblazoned with bulls and an “In This Together” slogan on the House floor as the General Assembly opened its session.

“This being opening day, this is when budget negotiations are supposed to start, but it appears as if many issues have already been decided,” Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham, said with a sigh. “Unfortunately, we weren’t in the room when those decisions were made.”

House Speaker Tim Moore bragged Tuesday that GOP leaders are far ahead of where they usually are at the start of short sessions because they have already agreed on a spending limit and taxes in addition to the average teacher raise.

Teachers themselves said they were glad to get some face time with lawmakers Wednesday, but they noted that a brief chat doesn’t solve all of their concerns.

“The challenge is to keep the conversations going, to get past all the Republican versus Democrat rhetoric and to see some progress,” Casey Oakes, a teacher at St. Stephens High School in Hickory, said after Rep. Mitch Setzer, R-Catawba, talked with a group of teachers about excessive testing and other topics.

Setzer was one of the few Republicans to meet with teachers as they congregated along the edge of Halifax Mall in county groups. Brown, R-Onslow, said he had scheduled meetings with teachers in his office.

“It’s great to see so many teachers out here, but it’s not going to change anything in the budget,” Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said after speaking with teachers on the mall. “It might change things later.”

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