Pender County Schools is the only local district staying open during Wednesday's planned teacher rally in Raleigh

PENDER COUNTY -- A group of Pender County Schools teachers is voicing its frustrations with how district leaders made their decision to keep schools open Wednesday, May 1, the day of a planned teacher rally in Raleigh.

Last week, Pender County's Board of Education voted to keep schools open May 1, despite dozens of teachers requesting leave to attend the N.C. Association of Educators' Day of Action in the state capital. The decision came on the heels of New Hanover and Brunswick county schools announcing they would close to students that day, due to the large numbers of teachers requesting leave.

Pender County Schools administrators have cited the fact that students missed up to a month of instructional time in the weeks after Hurricane Florence in the decision not to cancel another day of class. District leaders had also floated a plan for every school to send two teacher representatives to the rally.

But in a letter to administrators, a group of teachers claims the district has not involved teachers in its decision-making process and has left teachers having to choose between their pay and benefits for May 1, or petitioning legislators for things like better pay and more school funding.

The letter outlines three grievances:


That district leaders falsely represented their decision-making process regarding May 1 to the public.
That district leaders used Hurricane Florence "as a cover for their lack of support of staff and students’ well-being."
That district leaders have pressured teachers to skip the rally, including through undocumented communications.

In a statement Wednesday, Pender County Schools leaders wrote that they had worked hard to develop a plan that respected the free speech rights of teachers and kept the district's 18 schools open.

"As of Tuesday afternoon, Pender County Schools has enough personnel in place to keep instruction going when school takes in Wednesday morning," the statement read, in part. "Pender County Schools would like to say thank you to everyone’s commitment to making May 1 a success for staff and students."

Susie Lukens, a teacher at Cape Fear Middle School who helped author the letter, said she feels district leaders have been sending mixed messages about Wednesday's rally.

"We just largely have felt that Pender County has not been honestly representing their process to parents and other stakeholders," she said. "They have kind of presented this persona of supporting teachers and supporting staff, despite not actually giving it."

In a statement April 25 after the school board voted to keep schools open Wednesday, district leaders wrote that substitutes would be use to cover the classrooms of teachers attending the rally.

Not mentioned in that statement, Lukens said, is the fact that teachers' leave requests could be denied if there are not enough substitutes. While that's in line with state Board of Education policy, which states that all personal leave requests are "subject to the availability of a substitute teacher," Lukens said she and other teachers feel that district leaders are misrepresenting their level of support for teachers attending the rally.

"We do not have that kind of substitute employment in Pender County," she said. "(At some schools) it can be a struggle to find three or four subs when we have a heavy absence day."

As of April 25, 80 Pender County Schools teachers had requested leave for the rally.

The letter also takes issue with Superintendent Steven Hill referring to the two-teachers-per-school plan as a "compromise."

"A compromise is generally considered to involve both parties," Lukens said. "Teachers were not involved in looking for an alternative. That was not a compromise; they decided it would work better for them."

Lukens said as of Monday, her leave request was still listed as "pending." If her request is denied, she said she (and some of her colleagues) will be taking a day without pay to attend the rally. But she said that is not an option for all of her peers.

"Unfortunately, there are many teachers who cannot afford to miss even one day of pay," Lukens said.

"(Administrators) almost have stirred up their own storm by being so adamant about, 'We support you, but also we are going to make all these choices that undermine your rights to your benefits or undermine your rights to meet with your legislators'."

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.