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Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny

Is training center justified given state’s fiscal crisis?

Most people visit Jackson County for the mountain vistas, camping, and trout fishing. Public school teachers come here for the training.

The remote county might seem an unlikely site for North Carolina’s only professional development center devoted exclusively to reviving a love of learning in state educators.

With easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Cherokee casino, visitors typically are more concerned with kicking back and relaxing than taking seminars on holistic health, pottery, or global warming.

But for the 5,000 teachers fortunate enough to attend the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching each year, visiting Jackson County is more than a chance to take in some fresh mountain air — it’s an opportunity to network with other teachers and attend workshops on a range of topics.

Teachers don’t pay their own way, either. NCCAT picks up the tab for them to attend, including the expense of finding substitutes to handle their classrooms back home.

Yet in light of the biggest state fiscal crunch in decades, and with unprecedented teacher layoffs looming, that tab — amounting to $7 million from the General Assembly the past three fiscal years — is raising eyebrows.

With a state budget picture worsening by the day, some observers say the legislature should prioritize education dollars to core functions — and that NCCAT shouldn’t be part of them.

“It’s something we shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of money on when we have shortages in the budget and are looking at raising taxes in a recessionary economy,” said state Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.

Since its creation 25 years ago, NCCAT’s primary source of funding has been the state legislature. The General Assembly has allocated $7 million to the center each of the last three fiscal years, accounting for 90 percent of its budget this year. Its funding has doubled since 2001, when its net appropriation from the general fund was $3.6 million.

That’s been money well spent, Mary McDuffie, NCCAT’s executive director, told Carolina Journal during an interview at her office in Cullowhee.

“Teachers need the opportunity to have professional development to strengthen them, to improve their quality, to have them go back into their classroom better teachers than they were before,” she said.

Not that NCCAT, created in 1985 and taxpayer-funded, is all work and no play. Located adjacent to Western Carolina University’s main campus in Cullowhee, the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort.

And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.

Inside the main conference center, visitors have access to a computer lab, an indoor amphitheatre, a library, a health and wellness facility, and an extensive art collection. Meals, prepared by a large culinary staff, are served in a multilevel dining room that looks out on the gently rolling Appalachian Mountains.

“Teachers really enjoy the experience, and they feel like they come out of it much stronger,” McDuffie added. “What we do is not fluff. This is not something you can live without.”

Want or need?

But critics argue that, in tough times, NCCAT is one of the nonessentials.

“Before we talk about laying off teachers, cutting appropriations for the classroom, and going to the taxpayer for more money, we should look for significant reductions in other areas,” Berger said.

Others claim that NCCAT is ineffective in helping student performance, and that alternative strategies would yield better results. “It’s costing an arm and a leg,” said Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the conservative North Carolina Education Alliance.

“I would rather do away with it and do performance pay for teachers, and I believe we would get better results.”

A teacher retreat

Despite the center’s reputation among some as a boondoggle, supporters say that it reenergizes teachers and makes them eager to get back into the classroom.

“We keep teachers on their toes, and as a result they’re able to do better for their kids,” McDuffie said.

NCCAT offers dozens of five-day seminars throughout the year, most focusing on cultural, historical, and artistic topics, such as “Everyday Healthful Living: A Whole New You,” “The Healing Power of the Arts,” and “Sea Level Rise: The Impact of Climate Change on the Outer Banks.”

Teachers apply for the program but must get a recommendation from their principals. NCCAT decides who attends the seminars but tries to prevent the same teachers from going year after year.

Workshops are split between the main Cullowhee campus and a new site just opened in the former U.S. Coast Guard Station on Ocracoke Island. The legislature funded the Ocracoke renovation over several years at a cost of $8 million.

After taking a weeklong seminar, teachers can attend three alumni weekends conducted at hotels around the state, but they have to pay their own way. The events are more lighthearted. One focuses on the musical traditions of North Carolina, another on the music of Motown.

“It’s engaging and fun, but you also learn about the history of the period — civil rights and diversity,” said Renee Coward, NCCAT’s director of programming. Even though NCCAT has won praise from educators, critics say that no evidence exists linking faculty who attend with better performance in the classroom or benefits for students.

Kakaledis says no research has found that participating in NCCAT programs translates to higher student achievement. Nor does she buy statistics showing that teachers who attend are more likely to remain in the profession.

“Are those teachers we want to stay? How are their students performing?” she said.

Budget battles

By late July, budget negotiators in the House and Senate were still scrambling to overcome a $4.6 billion deficit and reach a compromise spending plan that could raise taxes by more than $1 billion.

The proposed budget includes across-the-board cuts to state agencies, including a 15-percent cut to NCCAT. Ask McDuffie how she plans to handle that reduction, and she winces.

“We hope that it’s a palatable cut. We’ll just deal with it,” she said.

McDuffie and her staff have lobbied legislators in Raleigh to keep cuts to a minimum. They succeeded in getting a special provision inserted in the budget that would transfer jurisdiction over the center from the UNC system to the State Board of Education, a move prompted by concerns over cuts to universities.

Lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would allocate another $2 million to NCCAT during the next two fiscal years, but the measure has not come up in committee.

McDuffie says she is ramping up efforts to find private sources of funding. The Wachovia Foundation and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation have provided financial support for years, but much of that has dried up, she said.

Aside from the legislature’s allocation, one of NCCAT’s largest sources of revenue is still courtesy of taxpayers — the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1999 to distribute the proceeds of North Carolina’s tobacco settlement.

Since 2005, Golden LEAF has contributed more than half a million dollars to NCCAT, including $174,000 this year. The foundation is known for its support of the Global TransPark in Kinston and the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids, both economic development projects criticized as pork-barrel schemes.

McDuffie says that she has always run a tight ship, and is even more committed to that goal given the state’s budget hole.

Even so, she handed out 6 percent raises to her executive staff last year, double the average amount received by public school teachers. Most of those who got the pay hikes already earn six figures.

McDuffie justified the raises by saying responsibilities for top staff have doubled over the last several years while compensation has not gone up. NCCAT employs more than 100 workers between its two campuses. “I really would have liked to have given them 15 percent, but that was not possible,” McDuffie said.

Priority shift

Educators and state employees gathered in Raleigh recently to protest salary cuts and forced furloughs mandated by Gov. Bev Perdue. Nevertheless, McDuffie says laid-off teachers aren’t resentful that some of their colleagues who are still employed are getting to attend NCCAT this year.

“If there is one thing teachers understand, it’s the importance of good professional development,” she said.

Berger, by contrast, emphasized the need to reevaluate priorities, including NCCAT’s appropriation, as the education budget tightens. “It strikes me that you could hire an awful lot of teachers for $7 million a year,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.