PEMBROKE — The Public Schools of Robeson County joined the growing number of school districts across North Carolina and will close for students on Wednesday as teachers join the March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh, which is timed with the opening day of the General Assembly’s short session.
According to the central office, an estimated 265 teachers and other staff had asked for time off on Wednesday. Most of the employees, 173, requested personal leave, and 80 requested sick leave.
Superintendent Shanita Wooten explained the system’s position, saying safety and quality of instruction were key factors when not enough substitute teachers are available.
“The board, along with administration, made this decision with student safety and instruction in mind,” Wooten said in a statement late Monday afternoon. “We simply won’t have enough teachers in place to operate schools safely or to ensure a high-quality instructional day for students.”
The Robeson Association of Educators helped coordinate local efforts on behalf of the rally. President Dee Grissett is pleased with the turnout and the support teachers have received.
“The schools have been very supportive,” Grissett said. “This is an exciting moment, an historic moment that I believe people will be talking about for many years.”
At least 38 of North Carolina’s 116 school districts have announced they’ll close school on Wednesday, the Raleigh News & Observer reported Monday. Those districts represent more than 1 million students, two-thirds of the state’s public school students.
In Robeson County, this will be an optional teacher workday to allow those who wish to participate in the rally.
Early College, which operates at Robeson Community College, will have classes as usual. Administrative staff at the central office will keep their normal work schedule.
The system recognized that some routines will be disrupted for families, and that finding child care could be a concern.
“We acknowledge the district’s closing may create a hardship for some,” Wooten said. “However, we thank our families and local communities for their continued support of the Public Schools of Robeson County students, teachers and staff members.”
The decision will be presented to the school board at its monthly meeting Tuesday. A make-up day will be decided later.
The rally is expected to draw thousands of teachers to the streets and cause gridlock at and around the legislative building.
At issue is better teacher pay, school safety and crumbling school buildings. The NCEA, which is sponsoring the rally, is asking for a significant increase in per-pupil spending; a professional career plan, including reinstatement of pay incentives for earning advanced degrees; the addition of nurses, psychologists, social workers and other support personnel; and the expansion of Medicaid.
Mark Johnson, the superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, has said he will not attend. NCAE President Mark Jewell said the event will be “memorable.”
“The response rate has been incredible,” Jewell said. “This will be something Raleigh has never seen.”
According to the NCAE, North Carolina teachers earn 5 percent less, on average, than they did before the recession when numbers are adjusted for inflation and health care costs are eroding pay. The state today spends 12.2 percent less per pupil than it did prior to the recession, ranking 39th in the nation.
The number of teacher assistants has been cut substantially and the state legislature removed pay incentives for graduate degrees in education.
At least one state legislator said the rally is driven by “union thugs.” Wooten was more diplomatic.
“While we appreciate the efforts over the past few years by the General Assembly to support public education, we recognize there is still much work to be done on behalf of our staff and students,” she said. “The March for Students and Rally for Respect on May 16th are two very powerful events to show our support for public school students, educators, and public education overall.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]