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Vital mission, valued skills – so why is Donna Casey’s job at risk?

Donna Casey, the CMS teacher assistant of the year, spends most of her day helping Beverly Woods Elementary students with reading.
Donna Casey, the CMS teacher assistant of the year, spends most of her day helping Beverly Woods Elementary students with reading.

Donna Casey helps elementary students learn to read. That’s the No. 1 mission for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

She loves her work. She’s good at it. And she works for peanuts.

You might think she’d have the ultimate job security, but if you’ve guessed that she’s a teacher assistant in North Carolina, you know the opposite is true.

“I get paid nothing and I’m probably going to lose my job, but I love what I do,” said Casey, who works at Beverly Woods Elementary School and is the CMS teacher assistant of the year.

CMS has notified more than 500 K-3 assistants that they have guaranteed jobs only through Sept. 4. Superintendent Ann Clark had hoped the state House and Senate would have agreed on a budget by then, preferably a compromise that preserves or expands the number of jobs for assistants.

That’s not going to happen, apparently. As lawmakers inch toward the budget that was supposed to be ready July 1, they’re now shooting for Sept. 18. The first two stopgap budget resolutions left the fate of assistants unclear, with the Senate plan calling for major cuts while the House plan would add some assistants.

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark now says she’s just hoping that the third continuing resolution offers some clarity about paying the assistants. She and other district leaders have been lobbying their representatives to provide some stability as kids returned to school this week.

“It’s just hard to live in two-week cycles,” Clark said.

It’s hard for the assistants, too. A couple of years ago, CMS responded to state cuts in the budget for assistants by scaling back their hours to save jobs. Once again, Casey said, the talk at morning clock-in is about how layoffs might work – will CMS use seniority or job ratings? – and “wondering who’s next.”

I asked to talk to Casey because of the budget turmoil, but she was actually more interested in showing me her mobile classroom, where she’ll work with small groups of struggling readers once the teachers get everyone settled in. She loves helping students who say they don’t like reading find a book that not only grabs their interest but matches their skills. (“They all want to look smart by reading Harry Potter.”) With a handful of kids in her trailer, she can notice and celebrate each small triumph.

Casey, whose two daughters are young adults, has been an assistant for about 10 years, after being a stay-home mother when her girls were younger. She runs a summer camp and does school-year tutoring to supplement her pay, which she says is around $20,000 a year.

She wonders whether the legislators who want to keep taxes low by cutting salaries like hers are so old they think assistants spend their days copying and laminating papers. “Do any of them really have kids in elementary school?” she mused.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg Democrat who has a second-grader in CMS, spent Wednesday trailing teacher assistant Dorothy Futrell at Shamrock Gardens Elementary. He live-tweeted the experience.

Casey wishes more of the people making money decisions had an up-close view of what assistants do, and understood what will happen to students and teachers if those assistants go away.

Casey says one of her daughters talked about a career in education. “I told my kids, ‘No way.’ ”

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