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HILLSVILLE — It’s a black day in Virginia when education is under attack, and some Carroll County teachers protested by donning dark colors on Feb. 17.
They showed their concerns over the General Assembly’s push to slash education funding, to limit teacher contracts to a year, to cut retirement benefits.
A good percentage of teachers at Gladeville Elementary participated and reports came in from organizer, the Virginia Education Association, of thousands of protestors from around the state.
Pat Hawks, fifth grade teacher at Gladeville, dressed in black from head-to-toe, including her jewelry and accessories.
“I’m showing my support and solidarity for my colleagues and expressing my concern over the cutting of funds for education.
“We hope this, along with other things, will come to the attention or our representatives,” she added. “I believe they will take note of it and do what they can to remedy the situation.”
Robyn Roper, also at Gladeville, noted that Carroll Public Schools is the largest employer in the county.
If the school system has to cut as many 40 positions because of budget shortfalls, that economic hardship will extend into the community, as fewer people will be able to afford to frequent local business.
“I am protesting because I want the legislators to give the teachers fair treatment,” said Christine Brown, a first grade teacher at Gladeville. “I would like for class sizes to remain small enough for the students to be able to learn successfully.”
Keith Hommema, educator and president of the Carroll Education Association, took the opportunity of the first budget public hearing before the school board on Feb. 14 to air these concerns.
This assault on education translates into an assault on teachers, as well, a fellow teacher expressed to Hommema.
“It seems everyone today is targeting the education institution, trying to discredit the wonderful, dedicated individuals who labor every day to encourage every child to reach their full potential,” Hommema told the school board.
In order to show their distaste for these proposals, Hommema encouraged teachers to wear black to school on Friday to protest the lack of respect for teachers by elected officials.
Educators believe that bills before the General Assembly regarding contracts for teachers and principals single these public employees out as the only group “denied a fair dismissal process,” he said. Permanent funding reductions of $1.4 billion for each two year budget cycle has pushed localities into cutting jobs and killing programs.
The budget reductions have also had a negative impact on class sizes, Hommema added. “Virginia used to be third in the nation in small class sizes. Due to underfunding, we’re now 41st. Students are losing out.”
Virginia, though the seventh most-prosperous state in terms of per capita personal income, now ranks 35th in funding for education.
Repercussions on the local level could mean job losses and larger class sizes, Hommema indicated.
“I have heard this board comment about concern for the safety of the students — concerns about a campus-style high school, as well as concern for the large number of students that will be required to be in the high school cafeteria at one time if the cafeteria expansion is not financed,” he read from a prepared statement.
“We shall experience the same student concerns if larger class sizes are mandated due to financial cuts,” he continued. “Not only safety concerns, but the inability to provide the personal attention each child requires.”
School board members have talked at length about upkeep for facility infrastructure, but Hommema reminded them that teachers are “the infrastructure of education.”
Hommema invited teachers dressed in black to the school board meeting. Some of them graded papers as they sat through 2.5 hours of discussion in open session.
These same teachers would probably be grading papers at home, because they don’t just clock out at the end of the day, but work when they could be spending time with their family, he said.
“The sacrifice of time and the expenditure of personal funds is a normal occurrence in the life of educators,” Hommema said. “These issues are not normally seen by the average person.”
Most people expect a critical shortage of funds for public schools next year. A raise would still be nice.
“A raise these employees deserve, a raise that would tell them they are recognized for what they do,” Hommema said. “But a raise at the expense of others losing their jobs is not acceptable.”
Educators ask that the Carroll School Board protect the jobs of its employees, maintain the current rates for health insurance and continue to support contributions to the Virginia Retirement System on behalf of employees.
Being the largest employer in the county is both a blessing and a curse, Hommema said. It’s a blessing because there are an appropriate number of employees to meet the needs of students. It’s a curse because the schools use a significant portion of the county’s budget.
Educators are not seeking a huge raise, Hommema concluded, just continuing support for the quality staff.
“All we ask is that in the budget process, regardless of the bottom line, we remember that it is the employees of Carroll County Public Schools who continue to do the quality job we do, which has resulted in the Carroll County Public Schools being recognized as a quality division,” he said. “A division that has produced Blue Ribbon schools, has been instrumental in pioneering the virtual school, has been granted permission to begin the STEM academy.
“Because, at the end of the day, Carroll County Public School employees demonstrate that education is more than a budget item — it is about people.”