Buncombe teachers seek better pay, bigger voice

PROSPECTIVE PARTNERS: Public education advocates lobbied the Buncombe County Board of Education at the April 11 school board meeting to partner with the Buncombe County Association of Educators in asking county commissioners for adequate funding to pay staff and fund programs. Photo by Greg Parlier

As budget season ramps up for local school boards and the county commission, teacher advocates are doing what they can to ensure educators are not forgotten.

The Buncombe County Association of Educators delivered a three-pronged request to the Buncombe County Board of Education at its April 11 meeting that had the support of nearly 1,200 teachers and more than 100 community allies.

“Everyone in this room is here because we believe in public education as a tenet of our democracy and a tool for ensuring liberty and prosperity. We are presenting this petition as a tool to reinforce and strengthen the belief in public schools,” said Samantha Gallman, a teacher at Owen High School, during public comment.

The petition outlined three requests of the school board and Board of Commissioners: Fund meaningful raises for all staff, prioritize staff time to set them up for success and fund exceptional children, mental health and behavior support programs.

BCAE is asking that classified staff — those without a teaching certificate like custodians, bus drivers and other student support employees — get paid a living wage as defined by Just Economics of Western North Carolina or a 20% raise, whichever is greater. Just Economics raised its living wage to $22.10 per hour in 2024.

For certified staff, including teachers, BCAE is looking for a 10% raise in every category, according to the petition. Maci Brown, a first-year teacher at Owen High School, said she loves teaching and wants to be able to welcome new colleagues into the fold who won’t have to work multiple jobs to survive.

“I truly want to be excited and hopeful about the road ahead. I want to see new teachers be able to come into the profession and not have to worry about being able to afford to live. We’re going to lose people. We already are losing people. How many teachers do you know who left for better-paying jobs, teachers who love teaching and who are rock stars at what they do and who have to make that impossible, impossible decision to stop doing what they love?” she said.

BCAE also is asking for increased funding for exceptional-children programs and mental health supports at each school. It wants to increase pay for all exceptional-children staff by $2,000 a year and increase those staffed positions by 10% districtwide, according to the petition.

The petition asks the district to base a full-time therapist at each school to ensure all students have access to mental health services. There’s also a request to double behavior support staff by hiring 13 additional specialists and assistants and establish a goal of eventually having at least one full-time behavior specialist at each school.

“Overall, we need enough staff in the building to meet these very important needs, and our educators are drowning,” noted Shanna Peele, a special education teacher for BCS and president of the BCAE.

The advocacy group also is looking for workplace improvements. Codi Edenfield-Estes, who teaches at Oakley Elementary, said the requirements of the job, including paperwork, meetings, conferences, professional development, dealing with student behavior issues and more have ballooned far beyond what’s possible to complete during working hours.

“In order to meet my students’ needs, I need more time. We need productive workloads that are student-centered, not paperwork-centered. Our entire school culture needs to be refocused so that schools can be functional, healthy environments for us all to work in to learn in,” she said.

Included in the petition, she recommended the district hire a full-time substitute for every school, a “super sub” who is familiar with the teachers and school culture. Teachers should have five additional workdays that are free of mandatory professional development and meetings, with classified staff who are also paid to work those days to help the teachers, she said.

Additionally, three planning periods per week should remain free of mandatory school-directed meetings so teachers can focus on preparing for their students, she added.

“All of these recommendations are pretty much free and just take a recentering toward working conditions and rights. We need to feel more respect from you and our leaders. We need more pay, but what I want more is more respect. In order for us to do a good job this needs to be a good job,” Edenfield-Estes said.

Calendar changes

Later in the meeting, the school board passed an amended calendar to add one teacher workday in between the first and second semesters, as had been previously requested by teachers.

As a result, instructional assistants were slated to miss a day of pay, since they are not typically paid on teacher workdays, said BCS Superintendent Rob Jackson. Therefore, the district amended the calendar for instructional assistants as well, ultimately adding 2.5 days of paid work for instructional assistants and all classified staff, Jackson said.

Next school year, hourly classified staff will have the opportunity to work up to 209.5 days total, the most since 2010, when they worked on a 215-day schedule. That was reduced to 203 days in 2015 for budget reasons and adjusted again in 2021 to 207 days, Jackson said.

This year’s changes will cost the district an extra $124,525 over last year, Jackson noted. Buncombe County Schools had a budget of $358 million in 2023-24, according to its website.

The change was prompted by a teacher who sat on the district calendar committee, Jackson said. Some teachers, like Elliot Lunsford, a teacher at Owen High School, said teacher voices should be incorporated into district decisions more often.

“When teachers are paid like professionals and when their voices are consulted in matters related to improving our schools, then they will stay. Teachers are leaving, and while pay is a huge reason, so is valuing our input as professionals,” he said.

Gallman echoed those sentiments in her plea for the school board to build a partnership with BCAE as the district builds its budget for next school year and makes its funding request to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in May.

“We know better than anyone else. We are on the front line. Incorporate our feedback, utilize our organization, partner with us, and reclaim the promise of public education,” Gallman said.


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One thought on “Buncombe teachers seek better pay, bigger voice

  1. Lou

    Teacher aides in special ed make less than janitors. They work their behinds off, change diapers, feed, lift all day long, get spit on and hit, it’s ridiculous how little they make. While we are making changes let’s make vaccines and masks mandatory so staff won’t stay sick ALL THE TIME. Do better DPI.

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