News: CJ Exclusives

Durham County will close schools on testing day to back rally at General Assembly

Students will miss mandatory exams; Cooper mum on wisdom of canceling classes

CJ photo by Don Carrington
CJ photo by Don Carrington

May 16 promises to be busy day for the General Assembly. Not only will the short session begin. But also lawmakers expected to be confronted with thousands of teachers rallying for higher pay and education spending.

The Durham County Board of Education made the most dramatic statement backing the protest so far. The school board voted 6-1 Wednesday night in a special meeting to close schools for the day and let teachers join the rally, even though standardized tests are scheduled that day.

The March for Students and Rally for Respect will begin with a 10 a.m. march from the North Carolina Association of Educators building to the Legislative building. Across the street at 3:30, a rally will be held at the Bicentennial Plaza.

After more than 1,000 Durham teachers asked for the day off to attend the event, the board discussed whether to close schools or attempt to fill vacancies with substitute.

Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga offered three options: Keep schools open and find substitutes for the absent teachers; close schools and reschedule testing requirements like the AP exam; or compromise with a half day, requiring 250 substitutes to cover morning classes.

Most board members, including chairman Mike Lee, supported closing the schools in support of the disgruntled teachers. Lee, vice chairman Steven Unruhe, and Natalie Beyer said they would join teachers for the rally.

The board voted 6-1 to close Durham schools and declare May 16 an optional “work day.” Board member Minnie Forte-Brown voted against the measure, but voiced support for the movement.

“There’s no other option but to close schools. We won’t have enough teachers to safely administer schools,” Lee said. “It was an obvious choice.”

On May 16, teachers plan to do more than protest. They say they’ll meet with lawmakers during the day on a host of education issues including school safety, school building repairs, and raising teacher wages.

“This is really catching on fire. We’ve got teachers coming from across the state. We’ve got busloads of folks taking the appropriate day, the personal leave,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell told WRAL. “This is not a strike or a walkout, but it is a huge mass uprising to say that public schools matter.”

Gov. Roy Cooper didn’t respond to Carolina Journal’s inquiry on whether he supports the day of advocacy.

One of the main drivers behind the march and rally is a recent report on average teacher salaries across the country.

The National Education Association released their annual Rankings and Estimates report showing North Carolina’s average teacher salary for 2018 ranked 37th in the nation. The average teacher salary is $50,861 for the current school year, about $9,600 behind the national average.

Terry Stoops, the vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said NEA’s figures are not adjusted for cost of living. Stoops argues that when cost of living adjustments are included, North Carolina’s rank jumps to 29th in the country.

And as CJ reported in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education has said it’s difficult to compare teacher compensation because states report the numbers differently. There’s no consistent state-by-state figure covering salary, benefits, and other forms of compensation, so ranking statewide averages may have little meaning.

The decision to close Durham County Schools has consequences.

Closing the schools so teachers won’t have to take a personal day means many families will have to find child care or take time off work to watch their children. Students from low-income families won’t have access to schools’ breakfast or lunch programs.

School employees like bus drivers will lose a day’s pay and child nutrition will lose $100,000 in federal reimbursement for meals. Faith groups and community organizations have announced they will help families and their children deal with the unplanned teacher “work day.”

AP exams will have to be rescheduled to May 23, but International Baccalaureate exams must be taken May 16. DPS will work with N.C. Central University to figure out how students can take their mandatory exams.