The “Sampson Perspective” town hall forum, as its name would suggest, was a chance to let local viewpoints be known to those that affect change at the local, state and national level. On Tuesday evening, many did just that — the majority of them sharing concerns about the economy, education and poor pay for teachers.
The Clinton-Sampson Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event hit on a variety of subjects that ran the gamut from tax and health care reform, recent legislation such as the Voter ID bill, mental health issues, as well as to local projects, strapped budgets and the resulting trickle-down effect from the federal level that was subsequently felt by the state and passed on to counties.
Chamber president and moderator Michael Chestnutt asked submitted questions for the bulk of the 90-minute session, provided to the panel beforehand, followed by an open question and answer session that lasted about 25 minutes.
Leaders in attendance for “Sampson Perspective” included U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre, D- 7th district; state Sen. Brent Jackson, R- Sampson; state Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson; and state Rep. William Brisson, D-Bladen. Sampson County manager Ed Causey, Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose and interim Clinton city manager and finance director Shawn Purvis were also present.
Each started with opening statements before the moderated questions began. While the topics were broad, a good portion of the session, held in a standing-room only Sampson Community College auditorium, was dedicated to the economy and education, which legislators said were not mutually exclusive.
A main budget driver, close to 60 percent of the state’s budget is committed to education. Bell, a former school superintendent, said it is important to be consistent when dealing with the education system.
“I feel like our school system is better than most people give it credit for,” said Bell. “I don’t think it needs a whole lot of reform, just some tweaking here and there. One of the problems I see overall is that every time we get a new governor, all of them want to be education governors and they come in with some kind of plan. We never can stay on a particular plan to see it finished. We’re constantly changing … we need to get to one and stick to it, to see that every child gets an adequate education.”
Chestnutt asked about the prospect of teacher raises, a subject that was the subject of a few comments from the public during the Q&A portion.
“It’s very realistic that there could be raises done in the next session,” said Jackson. “We had a major shortfall in Medicaid we had to cover this past year. Education currently gets over 56 percent of the state’s money. I see realistically there could be a chance for raises. We gave a 1 percent raise last session. Granted, that’s not much, we understand that, but it was a gesture to let you know we are concerned about it, very concerned about education and we tried this year but it was just not meant to be with the shortfall we had with Medicaid.”
If the state does not get the “Medicaid situation” under control or the economy rebounds quickly, the senator said, there will be even less money in future years to see to that extra compensation for teachers. Brisson said tough times for local communities have really not materialized in significant tax hikes as of yet.
It is hoped that won’t happen, but it is far from certain.
“The rural counties are going to be affected a whole lot more because the economic growth is not as strong as the larger, urban areas,” Brisson said. “So far we’ve been able to handle the changes on the county and city levels with fees, but that’s still impacting us as a whole in the general public. I do have strong concerns in the future if we continue cutting programs that mean so much to the people that I represent. Someone is going to have to pay the price, and I don’t see how the locals can pick that up with ad valorem taxes.”
When the economy is not strong, that means teachers do not receive raises and retention becomes a tougher task for a school system. Teacher compensation was the subject of several public comments at the tail end of Tuesday’s forum.
Jason Stehly, a Midway Middle School teacher, returned to rural North Carolina last year with 10 years of experience as a math and science teacher, a master’s degree and more than 20 additional credits.
“I returned to the area because I grew up in rural North Carolina and I wanted to return to the area to be a part of a community,” said Stehly. “But, in an area that is not financially competitive nor particularly systemically innovative right now, how are you going to attract educational innovators to the area?”
Brisson said it was a valid question.
“We have got to look at what we pay our teachers, and our caliber of our teachers and make sure we have good teachers like you,” said Brisson. “We have to get on a more national level with our pay. I visit these schools every year and I see what’s going on in the classrooms. People don’t realize the responsibilities. In my age, it was not that way. The teacher was in charge and we knew it, but now, not necessarily. It’s a tougher job. We have to get our teachers paid more.”
Jackson said he appreciated that Stehly would come back to the rural part of the state, something he admired. Like Brisson, he pointed to a larger economic issue.
“There’s a bigger problem of how we survive in rural North Carolina as far as bringing in jobs and tax base,” said Jackson. “We have to figure out a way to come up with this extra funding. Until we can get this economy turned around and get jobs created, I don’t see a mechanism … I agree we should be on a competitive level. There’s a bigger problem here than just education. Education is extremely important, but until we can get jobs back into Sampson County, Duplin County and even eastern Johnston County … it is going to take that before we get our tax base up.”
Tammie Page, a teacher for 30 years who is now retired from Sampson County Schools, said she was accompanied by fellow teachers and friends at the forum.
“I taught many years without salary increases, because we were frozen so many times. Every time the Legislature would come back, they would want to restructure the salary schedule and, in the end, there is no telling how much money I lost over my career,” Page said.
Again, teachers this year received no pay hike or cost of living adjustment.
“I’m concerned not only for myself, but for my folks who are still teaching,” said Page.
She also noted the elimination of the Teaching Fellows program, which produced a number of good teachers.
“That money was done away with it, that program was done away with and the Legislature in North Carolina chose to fund the Teach for America program, which is a national program, and it was funded $5.2 million this year and $5.2 million next year,” she said. “It seems to me it’s a matter of priority and I think our priorities are in the wrong place.”
“We cut out a program that was encouraging young people to go into the profession and, if you didn’t want that program, then take that $5.2 million and put it toward getting some increases to these teachers who are working and giving everything they have in that classroom every day.”
Chestnutt said he hoped the event would be the first of many, a chance for residents to have their voices heard. Janna Bass, executive director for the Chamber, said it is the organization’s aim to provide such events in informing its local business and community membership.
“The Chamber strives to serve as a voice to our members and we hope Chamber members took advantage of this opportunity to let their voice be heard with direct access to the local, state and national leaders,” said Bass. “We feel this event holds a lot of weight with the Chamber membership and has great benefit.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.