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Educators Meet With Senate Leader Berger After Protest

Travis Long
Charlotte Observer

Fifteen educators and advocates who expected to be arrested outside Senate leader Phil Berger’s office Monday night instead spent an hour talking with him about education and money.

The group camped outside Berger’s office after a “Moral Monday” rally that drew hundreds seeking better treatment of public education. They planned to be arrested after police said the building was closed. Instead, the Rockingham Republican appeared at 8 p.m., had staff pull six couches into a circle and listened to their concerns.

They agreed to keep talking, though no one’s views seemed to change. In the biggest twist of the night, Berger read a list of 14 agenda points prepared by “Moral Monday” founder the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, and said he had put them into an amendment.

“Are these things you’re saying you’re adopting?” one teacher asked, sounding stunned.

Well, no. Berger said the legislative staff calculated the cost of the demands at $5 billion to $6 billion, and said it would take a 50 percent corporate tax rate to pay that way. No one is willing to push for that, he said.

“There are some things that our folks feel are non-negotiable, and a tax increase is one of those,” Berger said.

Speakers at the “Moral Monday” rally blasted Berger and other GOP leaders for approving tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, while teacher raises are being paid for with cuts to assistants and other education spending. They also criticized spending $10 million for private-school vouchers, along with the Senate’s proposal to require teachers to surrender tenure if they want big raises.

The crowd at the rally included N.C. Teacher of the Year James Ford, who teaches in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Garinger High. He said he wouldn’t accept a raise under those terms.

“It’s a toxic deal,” Ford said. “It borders on extortion.”

Barber called the proposed raises a Trojan horse. Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. Senate have proposed budgets that include large raises for teachers. House leaders plan to present their proposal Tuesday morning.

After more than an hour outside in heat approaching 90 degrees, the crowd moved inside the Legislative Building. Most left shortly before 8 p.m., when the building closed.

The 15 who remained ended up in the talks with Berger, and they also shared their concerns about the Read to Achieve Law, which they said creates too much testing and pressure for third-graders who face retention for failing test scores. Teachers lectured the senator about the challenges of their classrooms and the need for better pay and better support for low-income families.

Berger agreed to follow- up on the group’s request for a further public dialogue by the end of this month, and they agreed to leave the building.

“I’m glad that we got to meet,” said Holly Hardin, who grew up in Iredell County and teaches in Durham County. “But if some of these proposals don’t come through, we’ll be back.”

The state NAACP began organizing “Moral Monday” protests last spring. The final one last July, which focused on education and was supported by the North Carolina Association of Educators, drew the largest crowd, with thousands of participants. Monday’s was significantly smaller; a Capitol Police officer said the group had sought a permit for 2,500, but the crowd was well below that.