School leaders across N.C. brace for mass teacher absences during upcoming protest

As Durham considers closing schools because of massive teacher absences, other districts across North Carolina are trying to gauge the scope of a May 16 march in Raleigh that could leave schools scrambling for subs.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools expects to have a preliminary tally Friday of how many teachers are taking leave that day, said school board Chairwoman Mary McCray. Meanwhile, district leaders are trying to line up all available substitute teachers and drawing up plans to send top administrators in to teach classes.

"I would be willing to go sub in a classroom myself if need be," said McCray, a retired teacher and former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

Even though Raleigh is in Wake County, which would make it close geographically for teachers to attend the march, Wake school officials say they're not seeing large numbers of educators who are requesting the day off. Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman, said they have enough substitute teachers at this point to cover for the day.

Wake hasn't had to call in top administrators to cover classes since 2015, when many teachers didn't show up after the district cut into spring break to hold snow makeup days.

Raleigh parent Stephanie Lormand urged interim Wake County Superintendent Del Burns on Tuesday to close school on May 16. She told Burns that he has nothing to lose.

"Please close Wake County schools on May 16th to allow the largest school system in the state to advocate for public school funding at the state legislature," Lormand said during Tuesday's school board meeting.

The Durham district has said nearly 1,000 teachers, or about 41 percent of its teaching corps, have requested personal leave May 16, with some schools reporting that nearly all will be absent. The school board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to decide whether to close schools.

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The march coincides with the opening of North Carolina's General Assembly — and with the final month of school, when students are preparing for exams and many high schools are giving Advanced Placement tests.

North Carolina's teachers and administrators are walking a careful line.

The "March for Students and Rally for Respect" is playing out in the context of recent #RedForEd teacher walkouts and strikes in Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky. Sources ranging from The Brookings Institute to Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss have flagged North Carolina as one of the next Republican-led states that's ripe for a teacher strike.

Leaders of the North Carolina Association of Educators are careful to say their May 16 action is neither a walkout nor a strike. North Carolina is a right-to-work state where teacher strikes are illegal. However, state law gives teachers the right to take personal leave with at least five days' advance notice — as long as a substitute is available and the teacher pays a $50 "required substitute deduction."

"The goal is never to strike or walk out. The goal is to change education policy," NCAE President Mark Jewel said Tuesday. He cast the action as a march for students and a rally for better pay, safer schools and newer buildings.

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Erlene Lyde, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, says her group had kept the call to action fairly low key, not wanting to prod principals into doing anything that might restrict participation. But after news of the widespread Durham participation broke, "I think it's going to ramp up," she said this week.

CMAE rally
CMAE president Erlene Lyde talks to the press during a 2015 education rally. Observer file photo

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg group has one bus to Raleigh filled and a second started, she said. Jewell said that, as of Tuesday, roughly 1,000 people had registered to participate, but those numbers could climb — especially if Durham County alone actually sends hundreds.

Administrators, meanwhile, are trying to support their teachers while avoiding massive disruption. And they don't want to antagonize the GOP-led legislature that provides the majority of public school funding.

"CMS supports teachers and is advocating for higher pay in the proposed CMS 2018-19 budget," spokesman Tracy Russ said last week. "The district looks forward to a full day of teaching and learning for students and teachers on May 16 based on current information."

McCray said she doesn't consider closing schools this late in the year an option, but she wants to see teachers participate in the march. She says she has heard the state senate will release its budget plan on May 15. Depending on how public education fares, she said, the rally could be a thank-you or a protest.

But the event has distinctly partisan tones and isn't likely to sit well with GOP leaders, who have long been at odds with the Democrat-leaning NCAE. Jewell praised Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's proposed education budget and called for supporters of public education to "march to the polls" in November to break the Republican super-majority.

Republican legislators have approved teacher raises since they took over in the aftermath of the recession, with the exact amount determined by experience and credentials. New and midcareer teachers have gotten the biggest bumps.

The National Education Association recently reported that North Carolina's average teacher pay ranked 39th in the nation last school year and is expected to rise to 37th this year, up from a low of 45th in 2011. Advocates for higher pay note that's still well below the national average. GOP supporters note this year's average is expected to top $50,000 for the first time and say the national ranking would be higher if cost of living were factored in.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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