Laid off or fired up?

On June 1, the Buncombe County Schools sent out about 80 letters informing nontenured teachers that their contracts will not be renewed. The move came in anticipation of a state education budget currently working its way through the N.C. House that would increase classroom size by two students due to an 11 percent budget reduction. If approved, it would mean cutting 6,005 teachers statewide, including 110 in Buncombe’s system.

“We do have people retiring and others leaving for other reasons,” notes Communications Director Jan Blunt. “Take them out of the mix, that leaves approximately 80 teachers.”

The state education budget isn’t due to be approved until July, but school systems are required by law to notify teachers by June 15 if their positions may be cut. The budget, notes Blunt, would also impact other school personnel, including bus drivers, secretaries and teachers’ assistants.

“This is the first hitch in the giddyup of the state budget, with what it looks like for education,” she says. “There will be many more cuts coming if the House moves forward with their proposals.”

But teachers, parents, students and administrators aren’t taking the news lying down. Since the letters went out, an information campaign has been launched to get the word out and perhaps persuade legislators to consider other options.

“We just want people to know that it’s real,” explains Anna Austin of the Buncombe County Association of Educators. “Making people aware of how these budget cuts can impact our schools and our community, I think that’s the goal right now.”

After the letters went out, school principals began circulating e-mails organizing a parent/teacher rally for Monday, June 8, and Asheville City Schools Superintendent Allen Johnson posted a webcast on that school system’s home page, alongside contact information for state legislators and a list of talking points.

A.C. Reynolds High School teachers Kirstin Daniel and Wendy Segars, both of whom received letters, said teachers are taking the issue to their students. Both have taught for two years and are not yet eligible for tenure.

“I told my students yesterday, because they have a right to know what’s happening in their education,” said Daniel, who teaches theater arts. “And they were heartbroken.”

Daniel is the school’s only theater teacher, she says, so if she’s cut, the whole program goes.

Segars, who teaches social studies, says she’s using the situation for some real-world civics lessons, telling her students to talk to their parents about contacting state legislators. For her part, Segars says she thinks the way the budget is being handled is shortsighted.

“Allocating funds is difficult no matter what, especially when the entire country is in debt. But what you need to look at is weighing the pros and cons for long term vs. short term,” she maintains. “You are taking funds that will suit a budget for this year, but what about the education for years to come?”

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