RALEIGH — Educators and former Democratic elected officials rallied Thursday near Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, accusing him and Republican legislative leaders of misleading the public about a state budget that they contend will hurt public schools.
Several groups organizing the rally, one of several being held this week across the state, say McCrory and other Republicans are playing down or ignoring the harm that the spending plan will cause as most traditional-calendar schools resume in less than two weeks.
McCrory and his allies have defended the final $7.9 billion budget for K-12 for spending more overall compared to last year and giving school districts more flexibility with funds to pay salaries, equipment or other items.
But former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, the keynote speaker for the rally on the old Capitol grounds, said Republicans are using deceptive language to hide the reductions. Per-pupil spending fell again this year as student enrollment keeps increasing, he said.
“The cuts are real, they’re undeniable,” said Etheridge, a former state schools superintendent, as he stood in front of about 100 supporters, many wearing red and holding placards that read “Protect Our Classrooms” and “Stop Your War on Teachers.”
“Our teachers and our students and our children deserve better,’ Etheridge added.
Etheridge, an unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate for governor last year, said there’s also $120 million less for districts to hire teacher assistants in early grades — the equivalent of 3,800 positions. It’s also another year without a cost-of-living teacher pay raise. Meanwhile, a state program established by the GOP-led legislature gives tax dollars to students in low-income families for private-school tuition.
Rally participants cited media reports of local school districts laying off teacher assistants or making them take pay cuts, or spending less elsewhere entering this fall. He said the burden will fall more on the local tax base to make up differences.
Alan Trogdon of Cary, a retired Wake County schools math teacher, said that while the recent wave of public school spending began nearly five years at the height of the last recession, Republican lawmakers shouldn’t be adding to the misery.
“This is not the way to turn that corner by cutting public education to the degree that they have,” Trogdon said after the rally. “It’s absolutely astounding.”
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph and co-chairman of the chamber’s education budget subcommittee, said counties that have sufficient reserves and use their flexibility wisely can handle the spending changes this fall. He believes the financial problems are overstated by critics.
“You’re not going to see overloaded classrooms,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more smoke out there than there is fire.”
The budget provides $500 pay raises starting next year for teachers who enter four-year contracts as part of the phase-out of teacher tenure rules. McCrory said earlier this month teachers would have probably gotten a raise had it not been for Medicaid cost overruns and he unveiled a program to reward the best 1,000 teachers an extra $10,000 each.
In response to the rally, McCrory education adviser Eric Guckian said Thursday the governor “is committed to reforming our antiquated teacher compensation system” and wants to work with all parties to address creating “a rewarding career path for our teachers.”