N.C. teachers' stand against layoffs

By Patrick O'Boyle

CHARLOTTE, N.C.--Over 100 teachers, teachers' assistants and their supporters rallied in Marshall Park here March 10 to protest a plan of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) board to cut hundreds of jobs.

Teachers were outraged at local media reports that, due to a predicted budget shortfall of $87 million, Superintendent Peter Gorman wants to cut all teachers with less than five years experience. This could amount to a third of the system's 9,000 teachers losing their jobs.

The rally was led by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators (CMAE), the local affiliate of North Carolina Association of Educators and the National Education Association. The demand was clear: absolutely no layoffs for teachers, teachers' assistants or assistant principals.

The board should look much harder for administrative cuts, including the jobs duplicated in the seven obscure "Learning Communities"--new off-site facilities, some of which reportedly cost over $7 million a year.

Also, $56 million in stimulus bill money has been earmarked for CMS schools--which President Barack Obama has repeatedly said should be for paying teachers. This stimulus money is not being factored into the decision to cut jobs.

CMAE President Mary McCray and Vice President Dennis Townsend gave rousing speeches. Townsend, who has been a CMS high school teacher for 21 years, opened his call to action by saying, "Today, I feel like we should be in Erickson Stadium. You know why? Because I feel like a political football, and Peter Gorman is the quarterback. We are constantly getting kicked and tossed around. They are using fear and uncertainty to keep us from standing up for ourselves."

Townsend was referring to the trend in CMS--common to many other workplaces--in which mysterious rumors about job cuts are circulated to paralyze employees and keep them from organizing.

Rally attendees heard from other furious teachers, parents, City Councilor Vilma Leake and school board member Ken Gjertsen, who announced that he would vote against the measure.

The park was filled with signs that read "Save Our Schools," "No to Cuts" and "Prune the Top." After the rally, protesters stood along a thoroughfare in downtown Charlotte, receiving plenty of supporting honks from passersby during rush hour. Then, more than a hundred protesters marched across the street and into the government building, where the school board was scheduled to vote on the plan during a public session.

As the auditorium grew full to capacity, Gorman and the board discussed the measure behind closed doors. In the public session, over a dozen impassioned parents and teachers addressed the board. "I know somebody has to lose their job--I don't discount that--but I say don't balance the budget on the backs of the classroom," CMAE President McCray said.

Plenty of creative cost-cutting alternatives were presented to the board, such as voluntary furlough, less investment in superfluous classroom technology, closing the $7 million dollar "Learning Communities" and cutting jobs in the administration.

The assembly erupted into applause for each of their speakers. This display of solidarity, however, did not suit board member Larry Gauvreau, who demanded silence and sneered that if every speaker were applauded, "We'll be here all night." His exhibition of hostility toward the assembly prompted immediate cries of "You're wasting time right now!" "This is our town!" and "Make eye contact with us when we talk to you!"

During the session, Superintendent Gorman nonchalantly stated that there had been a miscommunication. There was a motion to cut jobs, but only about 500 jobs, and the cuts would be based on performance--not experience. An e-mail had been sent out just before the session, he said, explaining everything. Gorman did not address how the Charlotte Observer had received information about more far-reaching job cuts, which it had published on its front page.

When asked about the $56 million in stimulus money earmarked for CMS, Gorman said he "didn't want to count on that." When the president and Congress gives you $56 million for education, with the explicit priority of paying public school teachers, you have no justification to start laying off teachers.

Ultimately, the plan was approved by a 7-2 majority. It was opposed by board members Kaye McGarry and Ken Gjertsen. "There's always a choice," Gjertsen said. "But we've decided it's inevitable."