LUMBERTON — A courtroom victory for two North Carolina school districts that have been allowed to opt out of the state’s mandates on teacher tenure may have implications in Robeson County down the road.
Superior Court Judge Richard Doughton on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought on by Guilford and Durham school boards that grants requests by the districts to put new state-mandated teacher contracts on hold. Doughton ruled against the state’s motions to dismiss the lawsuits.
The General Assembly last year passed legislation that eliminates teacher tenure as of 2018. Accordingly, the top 25 percent of teachers who have worked three or more consecutive years in the same district will be offered four-year contracts as well as a $500 raise every year for four years. The North Carolina Association of Educators filed a lawsuit in December, claiming that the new law is unconstitutional, and both Guilford and Durham school boards voted to refuse participation and sue the state.
“We have all been paying attention to the news about this one,” said John Campbell, a member of the Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County. “We have seen judges supporting Guilford County, and we are watching that carefully to see if we are going to have to offer the 25 percent contracts. We are watching and seeing if it is going to build up any traction.”
The Public Schools of Robeson County’s school board in March adopted a largely symbolic resolution expressing the board’s support for teachers who chose not to sign the new contracts, while also petitioning the General Assembly to repeal the law.
Proponents of the law say that it allows school districts to more easily remove under-performing teachers. Campbell and other critics blame the General Assembly’s treatment of teachers for last year’s high teacher turnover numbers.
According to a report released in December by the state Department of Public Instruction, the Public Schools of Robeson County lost 273 of its 1,505 teachers during the 2012-13 school year. The county’s turnover rate of 18.14 tied with Lexington City for the 23rd highest rate out of the state’s 115 local school districts, and topped the state average of 14 percent.
It was an increase from the 2011-12 school year, when 8.58 percent of the teachers left the local system. During the past five years the county’s turnover rate has averaged 11.2 percent a year.
“The massive number of teacher shortages is the result of being able to drive anywhere and make more money,” said Teresa Davis, president of the Robeson Association of Educators. “Sadly teachers can’t support their families and make a living with what the legislator decided to do. Obviously in Robeson County, that is the reason they are leaving.”
During the 2012-13 school year, teacher salaries for North Carolina teachers ranked 46th in the nation. The state’s beginning teachers are currently among the lowest paid in the nation at $30,778 a year. Gov. Pat McCrory announced in February plans to raise the base pay for brand new teachers and those with up to 10 years of experience to $35,000 during the 2015-16 school year. The increase still falls well below the national average for beginning teachers of $39,241 and doesn’t address pay for more experienced teachers.
“[It is] the latest slap to the faces of our seasoned and experienced teachers,” Campbell said. “Giving new teachers a 10 percent increase yet saying nothing you’ll do for veteran teachers. There has just been one attack after another on public education … . It is a crisis in public education. South Carolina and Virgina will benefit from what is going on in our state. I know many of our teachers have crossed the border to South Carolina. It is amazing that South Carolina is more progressive than us.”
McCrory has said that he wants to give veteran teachers more money as well, but doing so depends on the state finding additional revenue. Critics say the money isn’t there because the Republicans have cut taxes.
School board member Gary Strickland believes that the problem of teacher turnover is exasperated in Robeson County because it is a rural community and poor.
“Other counties can add supplements to teachers pay,” Strickland said. “If you go to Mecklenburg, Forsyth, any place with large tax base, you’ll find they can pay their teachers better. A rural county like Robeson doesn’t have the tax base that some of these bigger counties have and so we suffer in what we can offer our teachers as far as a supplement. The state has not made education a priority, especially over the last few years, and it is really hurting our rural counties … If you take tenure away, that is job security. They want to be able to provide for their families as well.”
State Rep. Garland Pierce, who represents the state’s 48th District, has been a vocal minority in the General Assembly in opposition to state’s mandates on teacher tenure.
“One point is obvious to me,” Pierce said. “North Carolina has become a training ground for teachers who will then go to states where their salaries are more lucrative. The General Assembly has really attacked education. Many teachers are on food stamps and have to work two jobs, and they are professionals. It is difficult to stay in that environment, the tenure, the lack of paying for advanced degrees. Just one thing after another.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a champion of the teacher contract law, is expected to appeal the the Superior Court judge’s ruling.