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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Teacher Assistant Funding Comes With A Big Catch

Lisa Worf
Courtney Mason in her classroom at Piney Grove Elementary.

This summer, North Carolina senators pushed a plan to cut thousands of teacher assistants. Educators from across the state rallied against the idea.  And in the budget compromise unveiled this week, lawmakers decided to keep funding for teacher assistants. But there’s a catch; and it’s one that many educators say is problematic.

Under the budget deal, schools would be required to use money for teacher assistants for only that. Nothing else. So, what’s the problem? Well, some schools also use that money to hire teachers like Darren Geraci who teaches second graders at Apex Elementary School how to sit properly and type. "Make sure our fingers are on the right keys, we’re using two hands to type."

Geraci is a technology teacher for kids as young as five. Most are use to touch screens so Geraci's first rule is "do not touch the screens. It’s learning how to use a mouse with kindergartners."

And how to create an excel sheet or deal with cyber-bullying with fifth graders. Geraci also takes care of technology throughout the school building. He trains teachers. He’s also the main contact on the school’s help desk. "If we lose him," says Principal Keith Faison, "I don’t want to say we fall apart but, it’ll be a burden." So Faison made a tricky compromise to keep Geraci around. He didn’t have enough money, so, instead of hiring two teacher assistants, he used those salaries from the state to create one teacher position. "I’d like to have both because we need both," he says, "but in our current situation we couldn’t add more teacher assistants at the expense of losing that teacher."

That means not all kindergarten through second grade classes here have teacher assistants. In fact, none of the second grade classes do. More than 40 school districts use this flexibility in the state budget to hire more teachers. But the budget deal lawmakers are voting on this week would take that ability away. So what does that mean for teachers who’ve already been hired? "We’re going to do everything we possibly can to prevent any type disruption in our schools and our classrooms," says David Neter, the chief business officer for Wake County Public Schools.

Wake County hired about 80 teachers using TA money. School leaders across the state will have to dig through their books carefully to make sure they can hold on to their teachers. 

Meanwhile, Republican leaders like Senator Tom Apodaca  say this new restriction will give schools some stability. "They weren’t happy when they didn’t have the money for teacher assistants," says the Republican from Hendersonville, "so it really needs to be used with what it’s designated for and if they need money for other items there are other flexibilities available."

But for some educators, precedent doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  Danny Holloman is superintendent of Person County Schools and he says he’s hesitant to use all of the teacher assistant money for just that because of one big question, "Are we going to be able to sustain them if we hire them? Or will there be legislation next year or the next year that would put us back at the point of maybe having to reduce?"

The number of teacher assistants paid by the state has dipped by more than 30 percent over the last seven years. Holloman says he appreciates the resources lawmakers are providing, but he says they’re not enough and the state needs to refocus its priorities. The Senate has already approved its nearly twenty two billion dollar budget plan. The House is expected to the same just past midnight.