Featured photo: Rep. Ashton Clemmons and a group of local Democratic leaders discussed the issues facing public schools at a press conference on Monday morning. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Teacher shortages, lack of state funding, culture wars in the classroom and an increased attention on “choice schools.” 

Those are the number of issues facing traditional public schools, according to a group of local elected officials who spoke at a press conference held at the Guilford County Democrats headquarters on Monday morning.

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, a Democrat who represents District 57, expressed her frustration with how the Republican-led General Assembly has been treating public education in the past few years.

“What we are doing is not working,” Clemmons said. “Children in our state should not have to go to classrooms without teachers in buildings that are not up to par and without even bus drivers because of the choices being made. Enough is enough.”

In addition to Clemmons, state Rep. Amos Quick (D-District 58), state Rep. Amber Baker (D-District 72), Guilford County School Board Vice-Chair and District 7 Representative Bettye Jenkins (D), Guilford County Commissioner Mary Beth Murphy (D-District 4) and Forsyth County Commissioner Malishai Woodbury (D-District A) spoke at the press conference.

Teacher vacancies

According to Jenkins, there are at least 75 positions open within Guilford County Schools, most of which are teaching positions. In Forsyth County, the number is higher, according to Rep. Baker, who noted that at last count, there were close to 190 positions unfilled.

A large part of the reason is the lack of funding from the state legislature to increase teacher pay, teacher incentives and teacher training, Jenkins said.

“Both our teachers and our frontline workers deserve raises to their salaries that allow them to provide [for] their families,” she said. “We cannot afford to be the No. 1 state in business but last in educating children.”

This is on top of the fact that the unemployment rate “is the lowest it has been for several years,” as Jenkins noted. According to data collected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina had a 3.3 percent unemployment rate in June down from 14.2 percent at the height of the pandemic in May 2020. This decrease in unemployment follows national trends, where the unemployment rate currently sits at 3.5 percent. And yet, across the public education sector, the number of job openings has only risen. According to the US Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the number of job openings in public education was 303,000 in late January, compared to 239,000 openings in January 2020. In percentage terms, 2.8 percent of jobs had openings this January, compared to January 2020 which had 2.2 percent of job openings.

Rep. Amos Quick and a group of local Democratic leaders discussed the issues facing public schools at a press conference on Monday morning. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Quick, who served on the Guilford County school board for more than a decade, said on Monday that the vacancies he’s seeing this year are “very distressing.”

“I served on the board of education for 12 years and often we would go into a school year with some vacancies, but those vacancies would be filled,” Quick said. “There was never this level of panic.”

To fill some of those vacancies, Guilford County Schools is hosting an on-the-spot job fair on Tuesday at Smith High School from 9 a.m. to noon. According to an email sent out by the school district, GCS’s Human Resources Department will be accepting applications, interviewing and hiring for a range of positions during the event. Jenkins stated that the district would only hire qualified candidates while Rep. Baker stated that on-the-spot job fairs are not uncommon. But once teachers are hired, they need to feel supported, she said.

“Teachers enter the profession knowing that they are not going to make a lot of money, but they also want to feel supported once they’re in the building,” Baker said. “They want to be able to get the additional skills that they need to be the best possible instruct that they can be. They want to have access to the supplies that they need in their classrooms and not have to go into an already thin pocket because we’re not paying them the wage that they need.”

Across the state, organizations often hold teacher supply warehouses to help educators get the tools they need to upfit their classrooms. In Guilford County, the Guilford Education Alliance opens their “store” before the start of every school year.

Lack of funding despite budget surplus

A large reason for the vacancies in Guilford County, elected officials said, is that Guilford County has been left out for the last two biennium budgets from a $100 million teacher supplement fund that state legislatures created in 2021. Reporting by other outlets, including Education NC, have stated that the focus of the fund was to help poorer, more rural counties supplement teacher incomes. Wake County Public Schools, Durham Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were also excluded from the funding. In 2022, the fund was raised to $170 million.

Still, representatives for Guilford and Forsyth County said that they need funds too.

“The reality is that the cost of living in urban areas is much greater than in some of our rural communities,” Clemmons said. “And by creating a system where only some counties are left out, we’re actually more impacting the urban areas in some ways.”

Legislators said that Guilford County is expected to be excluded from the fund once again in the upcoming 2023-24 budget, which has yet to be passed, as reported by FOX 8.

“We need the North Carolina General Assembly to pass a budget now and make the students a priority and provide them with the best teachers in education throughout the nation,” Jenkins said.

According to reporting by Education NC from May, North Carolina ranks in the middle of the pack amongst southeastern states when it comes to average teacher pay, but ranks remarkably low on starting teacher pay, with salaries beginning at $39,695. 

“A first-year teacher is just above the poverty line,” Baker said. “That is just ludicrous. As an administrator I often help teachers access food banks, I have done pools to help them pay their rent, they’re having to work two or three jobs when they’re already in difficult situations…. They’re stretched beyond capacity but yet they stay. And so we want to say to them, ‘We value you.’”

rep. Amber Baker and a group of local Democratic leaders discussed the issues facing public schools at a press conference on Monday morning. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

North Carolina acts as a kind of outlier in how it funds public education. Reporting by Education NC found that “in most states, local property taxes are the primary source of funding for education. That’s not how it works in North Carolina, where the state contributes 62 percent of revenue.” So when legislators don’t include enough funding for public education in the state budget, local entities like the county commission end up having to foot the bill.

“The county commissioners are being tasked with the responsibility of making up the shortfall in the General Assembly’s funding to local schools,” Murphy said. “Over the course of the last three years, we have continued to increase funding for schools as a result of the shortfalls at the state level. We are increasing teacher supplements because Guilford County was left out of the fund… and we are also increasing other funding for operational costs because once again, the General Assembly’s appropriation to the local school districts has failed to meet the needs of the districts. This puts a disproportionate burden on local communities. We’re faced with considering whether we have to raise local taxes to fund schools when the General Assembly, and in Raleigh, we have a budget surplus.”

In May 2022, Guilford County voters approved a $1.7 billion bond for public schools. Construction using the funds is currently underway, according to reporting by WFMY News 2.

According to a memo released by Gov. Roy Cooper in February, the state is expected to have an additional $3.25 billion in state revenues for fiscal year 2022-23, putting total state General Fund revenue collections at $33.76 billion.

“These increased funds are needed desperately to pay our teachers more, fund our schools, provide quality child care for parents in our workforce and to pay for the tax cuts for working families that we put in place last year,” said Cooper in the release.

Culture wars in the classroom

On top of a lack of funding for school facilities and a lack of adequate pay, teachers are having to deal with yet another obstacle in their careers as of late: the influx of “culture wars” into the classroom.

When asked about issues such as pushback against critical race theory, which is not taught in public schools, and an increased wave of book bans, Quick said the issues create a “toxic environment for educators and students alike.”

“The classroom is no place for cultural battlegrounds,” Quick said. “Students ought to be educated, respected and taught to be responsible, productive and caring citizens. And they understand that this is a diverse society that we live in. And so learning about the diversity and the gifts that come from that diversity is an addition to the educational environment.”

Presidential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, who have both made anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ+ books a part of their platform, are a “sign of desperation,” he said.

“Our teachers are college-educated professionals,” Quick said. “They’re not just warm bodies to be used as political footballs…. They understand pedagogy and youth development.”

Murphy, who works as a public school teacher, said that when students see their identities being used by politicians as political fodder, it creates an environment that makes learning more difficult.

“We need to leave politicians out of the classroom and leave educating young people up to the professionals who are trained to do that work,” Murphy said.

During the 2022-23 school year, Guilford County Schools saw two book challenges, both coming out of Northern High School. District officials said that it was the first time in several years that they had received a book challenge. Still, reports show that challenges are on the rise nationally.

Northern Guilford English teacher Holly Weaver speaks at a book challenge public hearing in the school’s library on May 19, 2022. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

But Woodbury, who served on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board prior to being elected to county commission, said that in their district, they worked to implement a diverse curriculum, something that would be difficult in today’s political climate.

“Five years ago, we implemented the African-American and multicultural infused curriculum,” she said. “It brought the community together after a bit of a battle, I’ll admit, but we ultimately settled on a policy that includes all of the demographics of our children in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County.”

In 2019, the Winston-Salem Forsyth County school board voted to approve an African-American infusion curriculum while voting down a mandatory African-American studies course. Woodbury was the board chair at the time.

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