Lisa Horak had just completed her first year of teaching when the Buncombe County Schools notified her that, due to proposed state budget cuts, her contract wouldn't be renewed.
For Horak, teaching was a dream come true. She'd earned her education degree following the birth of her two daughters, after leaving a previous career as a nonprofit fundraiser. Teaching second grade at Glen Arden Elementary — the same school her daughters attend — was simply "awesome," she says. But receiving the letter was "devastating."
So at a June 18 rally at T.C. Roberson High School, Horak joined fellow teachers, parents and school administrators in urging concerned residents to sign letters and petitions pushing state lawmakers to back off on the education funding cuts.
Facing a $4.7 billion budget deficit, the state House and Senate have both proposed spending plans including a range of cuts and tax increases as they finalize the two-year budget.
But the idea of eliminating teaching jobs has sparked a vocal backlash. In the Buncombe County School system, 80 teaching positions have been eliminated, resulting in increased class sizes. The Asheville City Schools haven't announced how many teaching jobs might be affected by cuts. The Enka School District staged a similar rally June 8.
"I would like lawmakers to think … out of the box. I think they're taking the shortsighted way out," said Horak. "I hope they're thinking creatively and not taking the quick hatchet."
Gov. Beverly Perdue has crisscrossed the state, rallying with teachers. She stopped in at the Roberson rally after visiting a similar gathering in Charlotte. And while the governor offered few specifics during her speech to a cheering, applauding crowd of about 500 in Roberson's gymnasium, Perdue has said she favors a package of tax increases that would raise about $1.5 billion to help offset the budget shortfall and stave off education cuts.
Teaching “is the most important profession in America, in the world," Perdue declared, adding, "We're going to keep teachers in North Carolina."
Jenny Pritchard, co-president of the Estes Elementary School PTA, said she was "fine with a tax increase" to avoid compromising the state's public-education system.
"Our children deserve a quality education. We'd just like to continue moving in a positive direction," said Pritchard, noting that fewer teachers and teachers' assistants could lead to a decline in the quality of education.
Rob Brooks, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Valley Springs Middle School whose contract wasn't renewed, said, "I think larger class sizes will make the learning atmosphere more difficult for our students.
Chris Cowan, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at Valley Springs who's also now out of a job, said he'd like the state to consider adopting an early retirement plan for teachers.
Before Perdue's brief appearance, hundreds signed petitions and letters to lawmakers. At one table, children used colorful markers to write out personal messages on posters. One message, scrawled in blue ink and signed "Tyler," was clear: "Do not take away our teachers."