State legislator offers views on questions posed of school superintendent

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Reporters Note: A few weeks ago, we interviewed Larry Cartner, Superintendent for the Pasquotank County – Elizabeth City Public Schools System. We express our appreciation to Mr. Cartner who took the time to offer his responses on a range of subjects.

To give our readers the legislative perspective, we contacted State House Rep. Bob Steinburg for his views on questions pertaining to school funding. The following is the original question to Cartner; Cartner’s answer; and Steinburg’s view.

Q: When you spoke to us at the Bishop’s meeting, you mentioned that school funding had been reduced and teacher pay had been reduced and that additional financial resources were needed.


Larry Cartner

Larry Cartner

Cartner’s answer: Teacher pay has not been increased. The current legislature has put teacher raises at five-year plateaus. If you happen to be a teacher who is hitting one of those plateaus, you get a raise but if not, you do not get a raise. That has the effect of not compensating teachers who have grown in their craft and have more years of service. If you are a teacher with 26 years of service you did not get anything except $750. The same is true if you have 28 years of experience. I think that the program of awarding pay increases every five years is misguided and that you are not helping the profession when you do that. Politicians want to spend it a different way but school funding under this legislature has been greatly reduced. We are not even close to where we were in 2008. It is easy to say that we have given you this much extra money but that is not true if it is money that you would have gotten anyway. Especially if it is directed into spots that it must be used for. Giving us money that we can actually use to step up programs, hasn’t happened for the last six years. The problem is that this becomes a cumulative effect. If we do not change our political course in the legislature, schools will be harmed and at some point you will reach a tipping point where you won’t be able to recover from that harm. Some people are quite cynical thinking that this is the end game for the legislature anyway that they want to decimate public education where it cannot survive.

Bob Steinburg

Bob Steinburg

Steinburg’s view: We are in the early stages of the process of reforming teacher pay. One of the things we did right from the get-go was that we recognize where we were having the greatest teacher turnover was in starting teachers. When the Republicans took over, the starting teacher pay was around $30,000, which we have raised in the last three years to $35,000, which has dramatically improved the situation. We expect that this will reduce the number of turnovers. Teachers were leaving the school system in less than five years, before the next plateau because they were at the $30,000 salary level. We have broken this down and the main emphasis at the beginning was at the place where the greatest turnover was occurring. Republicans have raised the starting salary by $5000. The superintendent mentioned the $750 onetime bonus that all state employees received, as being insignificant. I would remind the superintendent that on a $40,000 salary, this one-time bonus would amount to a raise of nearly 2 percent, but it was only in effect for one year. It is anticipated for this year that the legislature will consider the finances of the state and how revenues are coming in, but I suspect that the raise will be 2 percent across the board for this year.

Q: What could possibly be gained by doing that (decimate public education)?

Cartner’s answer: There is a very strong belief that the legislature wants to privatize education and expand charters. When you look at public schools, look at either side, House or Senate — education is a people intensive business so when they see all this money going to people, if they want to cut somewhere this is the where they cut. You cut people through reducing teacher assistants. I can’t speak to their goals other than privatization and increasing charters. Some people are more cynical than I am and I do not believe that this is their endgame but it may be the reality of the endgame they are going to have.

Steinburg’s view: What is interesting here, with all due respect to the superintendent, his answer is just what he claims. He is exercising an opinion that he cannot support or document with facts. The test scores do not bear out that progress is being made but this is not a condemnation of any particular school district. What other commodity out there, limits the choice of the buyer except school education. In the past, parents were told this is our K-12 school and they had no alternatives. This was where you had to send your child, plus your child could be collateral damage in whatever the school is attempting to accomplish. We presume that our schools are trying to get things right, whatever issue arises, but in the meantime the child is not scoring well and this particular school may not be a good fit for him, therefore his choices have been greatly limited in the past, but no longer.

Our feeling is that if it is not working, we need to fix it, but while we are attempting to fix it, we believe that school choice is an important issue.

For the superintendent to suggest that the legislature is attempting to decimate public education is ludicrous. In the most current budget, the spending for education has been increased by $400 million, that amounts to approximately $750 million in the past two budget cycles. We are offering school choice and we have expanded that and lifted the cap on charter schools. The limit on charter schools used to be 100 but now that has been lifted with many, many other charter schools either built or in the pipeline. I would remind the superintendent that charter schools are public schools. For him to suggest that we have decimated public education by offering parents and children a choice of which school to attend, is just not so. We are expanding the base by which students and parents can decide which schools are in the best fit for their child’s education.

Q: When you come out of a recession, whether we are out of it or not, economic growth in this country is very low and of course there is a dispute between the House and Senate as to what if any incentives should be used to bring companies with lots of jobs to this state, the fact is that economic growth is at 1 to 2 percent and there is considerable demand for funding by various departments, not just yours that are seeking greater and greater funding, where does it end?

Cartner’s answer: It doesn’t. You prioritize. Look at the $400 million surplus. Nothing was restored in education. Restorations were made in other places and salary raises given to public safety but nothing for teachers. You have to put resources where you say, that has not been the case with education. Resources were put elsewhere.

Steinburg’s view: The superintendent suggests that the State of North Carolina should have spent its $400 million surplus on education. But what he does not consider is that this state went for years with no Rainy Day Fund, which now has reached nearly $1 billion. Now we have a significant rainy day fund to cushion the state against the downstream effects of cuts in spending from Washington, D.C. coming into our state. We are not rolling the dice; we are not hoping that it won’t happen; we have to be prepared for it and for any eventuality that comes our way. For anyone to think that because you have a surplus that you have to spend it. We needed to prepare and we have done so.

One thing that the superintendent fails to consider, when discussing the surpluses, was the fact that when President Obama came into office, there was a massive amount of money that filtered down from Washington, D.C. into the states and localities. This funding came as a result of the “stimulus plan” that was billed as funding for public works projects. A significant portion of the money that came into North Carolina was put into public education. What that means is that in 2009, a significant infusion of capital came into education, but unfortunately, what happened was — just like the superintendent is not addressing the situation that might occur in Washington after the election — he, like many other people in public education, failed to consider what was going to happen when the federal money dried up. Many educators were considering how they were going to use this newfound money with no thought about what was going to happen when the money was no longer there. Then when the Republicans came into the legislature, the stimulus money was gone and we were faced with the prospect of discontinuing programs for which funding was no longer available. In my view, government should never fund anything without a 10-year window as to how they are going to sustain that funding if it’s just a year-to-year situation. To do less is to engage in a crap shoot, which puts money for vital programs at risk. They knew that the stimulus money had a four-year window and they went ahead with spending plans as if the money would continue, which left the Republicans with a huge mess on their hands.

The education opposition tried to frame the problem as though it was the Republicans that were trying to cut spending when we were just trying to get back to fiscal reality. With the absence of that money, we had to go back to where we were four years previous and in the process we got beaten up by the Education Establishment and the Media in the process. This was a false narrative that was created by the NCAE and their allies. Now we have crossed over the $19 trillion debt threshold in Washington spending. We have some people, including my opponent (Sam Davis) saying that we should expand Medicaid even further. I ask, with what? The federal government never has a penny that it first did not take from someone that earned it. So rather than expand the growth of spending, we are attempting to install reforms that will make the wisest use of the money that is available.

Q: There are people in the Department of Education that are getting huge salaries. Some getting $200,000 salaries others getting amounts around $150,000. Is not the case that some of this money could filter down to the local level and help you? Reporter’s clarification: – In this question I was asking the Superintendent about the NCAE, where administrators are drawing very large salaries, not the State Department of Public Instruction. The Superintendent answered the question that was posed to him. We did not ask the question correctly.

Cartner’s answer: That makes for a nice sound bite but I don’t believe there is anybody at the Department of Education that is making $200,000, isn’t that part of the problem at your level? If you have someone making $150,000 and you take half of that, how far will that go? It’s one of those cases where people can throw rocks about anyone’s salary. You could eliminate the Department of Public Instruction, and that would not make a dent in what has been cut from public schools.

Steinburg’s view — With regard to the issue of the teacher bureaucracy, there are six or seven people within the North Carolina Association of Educators that make an average of $167,000, in round figures, with the director of that agency making in the vicinity of $225,000. So when you think about how much money is available in the education system to pay for teacher salaries, you have to think about the dues that the teachers are paying in order to pay these high salaries along with the people in the regional management structure. This is big money being paid to individuals on the backs of ordinary teachers that they purport to represent. It is interesting to note that they have steadfastly refused to provide their enrollment numbers because in order for the dues to be taken from your pay, the Association must maintain a certain level of membership, which I believe is approximately 35,000 dues paying members. I submit that the NCAE is not furnishing their enrollment numbers for reasons that are pretty obvious to everyone that their enrollment is down precipitously over the past four to five years.

The following represents comments made by Rep. Steinburg, not related to any specific question:

Steinburg’s view: I typically do not get into situations involving local politics because we have elected local leaders to resolve these matters. But if I were the Superintendent, and a Pasquotank schoolteacher, before I started giving the legislature a hard time about how much money they’re not spending, after having increased the cost of public education by $750 million, I believe I would want to know from my local leaders why they found it necessary to take $750,000 out of the school budget to pay for employees of the Department of Social Services who had gone on strike to increase their pay at the expense of public education.

I am all about education and I recognized the importance of teachers and public education. I think that teachers are underpaid and that we can do better. We should do better and we will do better as the economy improves, and I say that with the understanding that many of our state employees are underpaid as well. Public Education is going to be doing the heavy lifting in this country for years to come and for anyone to think that the General Assembly is attempting to gut public education is not making a statement that is consistent with the facts.

Reporters comment: The issue of spending for Public Education has become a huge political football, and we hope that our readers have become better informed due to these articles. We did not ask Rep. Steinburg about the matter of ineffective spending for Capital Improvements and the impact on available funds for Public Education. But we see the Superintendents answer on this matter to be quite instructive. Essentially, he believes that once the bid process is completed, that if it is determined that a significantly lower price becomes available, that the schools have no obligation to re bid the project. We took this answer to mean that the process was more valuable than achieving the results of the best quality at the lowest cost. Likewise, the coming election will have the Federal Budget and deficit spending as a key element for voters to consider. But the Superintendent states that he has made no plans for any contingencies if control of the White House changes hands. One thing seems certain; the Legislature is attempting to prepare for the future while others are not. A few years ago, a person who now seems very prophetic, stated that the gravy train was coming to an end. Was she right? Are our citizens prepared for the day when we cannot print more money? You are readers, will have the opportunity to decide the answer to this question.