Durham teachers stand against four-year contracts

Feb. 05, 2014 @ 04:43 PM

About 96 percent of the teachers at Durham School of the Arts have signed a letter vowing to not accept four-year contracts and annual bonuses they would receive in exchange for giving up tenure.

Several of the school’s teachers and dozens of supporters gathered in the DSA atrium Wednesday morning to join a statewide movement against a new state teacher-tenure law.

The legislation requires school districts to offer four-year contracts and bonuses to 25 percent of teachers who have been employed for at least three consecutive years and are deemed proficient in evaluations.

The letter, signed by teachers at DSA and other schools across the district, will be delivered to the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

Under the law, backed by state Republicans, teacher tenure will be phased out in 2018, leaving them without current job protections and certain due-process rights.

A panel of DSA teachers told supporters that the law, when implemented, will divide educators and represents a growing number of state laws and policies that devalue the teaching profession.

Those policies include the elimination of teaching fellows and extra pay for advanced degrees, as well as the lack of a substantial pay increase over the past several years.

“The word I use is shameful,” said Milton Little, a sixth-grade English teacher at DSA. “Friends from out-of-state say ‘What in the world is going on in North Carolina?’ ” 

Little said that requiring teachers to compete to be among the 25 percent selected for contracts is divisive and demoralizing.

“I share the same feelings as my colleagues here, and I do not want to be pitted against them in a decision [to receive a contract and bonus],” Little said. “That is shameful.”

Amber Carroll, a visual arts teacher and an alumna of DSA, said students sense that the teaching profession is not valued by state leaders.

“I often hear my students say they could not be a teacher because they don’t make any money,” said. “This makes me question the way they see us.”

Carroll previously taught in the Montgomery County school system in Maryland and said she took an $18,000 pay cut to return to Durham.

Pay for North Carolina teachers is among the lowest in the nation.

Jennifer Tuttle, a sixth-grade math teacher at DSA, said she bought a house in 2008 with the expectation that she would receive regular pay raises.

“Three months after I signed my mortgage, my salary was frozen,” Tuttle said. “That’s really overwhelming and puts a huge burden on me.”

Tuttle said that since her salary has been frozen she has taken on additional responsibilities, such as becoming a team leader and a department chairwoman.

“I feel like I contribute a lot to the world and I feel like the level of respect is just not there,” Tuttle said. “I don’t want to leave teaching, but if something doesn’t change I will have to.”

Helen McCleod, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said she loves teaching, but believes the profession is devalued.

McCleod, a 41-year teaching veteran, said the requirement to offer a percentage of teachers contracts and bonuses will further diminish the profession.

“I feel like this initiative is just a very small part of a larger picture that continues the overall lack of respect for the most important profession in the world,” McCleod said.

She said the only way teachers can increase their pay is by leaving the classroom, a move many of them don’t want to make.

“We want to stay in the classroom, but we also have to live, to support ourselves, pay our bills,” McCleod said.

Teachers also have said the law will undermine collaboration among teachers.

“It’s going to make us compete against each other, and, frankly, it’s going to be divisive and create a divisive atmosphere among teachers and I oppose that,” McCleod said. 

State Sen. Floyd McKissick said teachers have a unique responsibility in society that should be respected.   

“It’s a sad, sad day when America is in a race to the top in education, and North Carolina, in terms of teacher pay, we’ve fallen to 48th among the 50 states,” McKissick said.

He said it is insulting to ask teachers to compete against each other.

“We should not enter into this false competition for the most important jobs in this state,” McKissick said. “We should be incentivizing our teachers.”

DPS board member Natalie Beyer noted that the board has passed a resolution opposing the four-year contracts and bonuses.

“This is, in other words, a hot mess,” Beyer said. “We’re asking the General Assembly to come back to Raleigh and fix it.”