Tamarah Hefner has worked for Catawba County schools for 26 years, driving elementary, middle and high school students to school at dawn and back home at dusk, then educating children in grades K-6 during the hours in between.
Hefner and her colleagues, who are teaching assistants that are required to double as school bus drivers, not only work with children to help them become proficient readers—they also administer feeding tubes, proctor end of grade tests, restrain kids properly when they are in crisis, and serve as medical first responders because there is only enough money to have a school nurse on the premises for a few hours a week.
Hefner works from 6:30 in the morning until almost 4:00 in the late afternoon, five days most weeks for ten months out of the year. Driving, educating, supporting, feeding, cleaning, nursing, restraining—the list goes on.
She earns—after 26 years of service—$28,000 annually before taxes.
Hefner came to Raleigh on Tuesday not to protest the low wage she receives for a job that demands an impressively diverse set of skills.
Instead she travelled 160 miles to Jones Street because, thanks to the actions of some lawmakers in the General Assembly, this fall Hefner might lose her job.
As a part of their “Pink Slips Truth” tour that’s made stops in Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greenville, scores of teacher assistants (TAs) joined Hefner at the state capitol Tuesday to draw attention to the Senate’s budget, which proposes eliminating more than 8,500 TAs from state classrooms over the next two years.
“The message the politicians are sending is, ‘Y’all have a happy fourth of July! We’re going to the beach! Maybe we’ll fire you when we get back,'” said Melinda Zarate, state secretary of the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants at a press conference.
It’s around this point during the summer break that local school districts must make staffing decisions for the upcoming year based on how the state has decided to fund the classroom.
But as the end of the fiscal year approached, lawmakers still hadn’t reached a budget deal, forcing them to pass a continuing resolution Tuesday that keeps state government running while a final budget is hammered out.
The General Assembly left the fate of teacher assistants’ jobs, however, up in the air. Budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) said Monday evening that it’s up to local school districts to decided if they would like to draw down a pot of funds intended to accommodate student enrollment growth in order to save TAs’ jobs.
After years of cuts to public education, local school districts may technically have flexibility in how they use state funds, but many school officials have said there are too few dollars to have much real choice in how they divvy up money to keep classrooms up and running now that the state has fallen to 46th nationally in funding schools on a per pupil basis.
Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake) said Tuesday that with the Senate’s proposal, the state
would cut teacher assistant jobs by 70 percent from where the state was seven years ago, while also noting that the economic recession that served as the basis for these harsh cuts is over, and the state is actually dealing with a budget surplus.
“Yet the Senate budget chooses to spend in this biennium $600 million in corporate tax giveaways at the same time they’re firing 8,600 teacher assistants,” said Sen. Stein.
In exchange for booting what amounts to nearly half of the remaining state-paid teacher assistant workforce over the next two years, Senate leaders have said they want to shift a part of those funds that would pay for TAs into reducing class sizes in the early grades by hiring more teachers.
A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger cited unnamed research that served as the basis for the Senate’s proposal to reduce class size.
But while many welcome the notion of smaller classes, in many locales housing those extra classes would be impossible without additional funds for building.
“Are they going to give us money to create new construction?” said teacher assistant Lacy Autry when he came to the legislature earlier in June to talk with Senate leaders. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms.”
It’s also important to realize that to do away with a teacher assistant is to do away with a position that has evolved over the years. In most cases, TAs fill in many gaps in the classroom that have emerged thanks to persistent state disinvestment in public schools.
Beginning in 1989, teacher assistants in Catawba county were required to be “dual employed,” said Hefner.
“We all had to get our commercial driver’s license and drive buses in order to work as TAs,” she said.
About 50 percent of Catawba County’s school bus drivers are also teacher assistants, a common scenario for many rural school districts. When lawmakers were considering large cuts to TAs last summer, the district’s transportation director said it would be extremely difficult to staff the shorter bus routes that TAs work because they would have to be staffed by those willing to work fewer hours than would normally be enough to also qualify for health and retirement benefits.
Many of Hefner’s teacher assistant colleagues “fleet,” which means they get up at dawn to drive a high school and middle school bus route, then turn around and drive another elementary school bus route.
Once they’ve gotten kids to school, then the next part of their day begins.
“I work with small reading groups all day long,” said Hefner, who said long gone are the days when teacher assistants simply make bulletin boards or help out here and there in the classroom. “It’s up to us to make sure kids are reading on grade level by the end of the year.”
Class sizes at her school, Claremont Elementary, range from 20 to 24 students, with some classes as high as 30.
With new state standards that emphasize proficiency in reading, Hefner and her colleague, Regina Dancy, said many students would be failing without that one-on-one support that only TAs can offer when teachers are trying to juggle the infinite needs of 20-something small people throughout the day.
“If you fire all of these TAs, the children who need help will really suffer,” said Dancy, who recounts how many times a significant portion of students in the classrooms she works in often start out the year failing benchmarks only to have gotten up to reading on grade level by the time she finishes with them at year’s end.
Reading isn’t the only responsibility that teacher assistants are tasked with throughout the day, however.
State funding for school nurses has been far below the national standard for more than a decade, leaving many schools with a nurse on campus for only a few hours a week.
Dancy serves on a medical emergency response team called “MERT,” which is designed to get trained first responders to the scene when a child has fallen or has an asthma attack. She also serves on the school’s CPI team, intervening during a crisis and relying on training to properly restrain a student exhibiting violent behavior.
Teacher assistants have also administered insulin shots and even feeding tubes and catheters.
At the end of the day, Hefner and Dancy pack up and “fleet” once more, making sure their students get safely home.
Twenty-eight thousand dollars a year to drive kids all over rural roads, teach them how to read, nurse their medical conditions and provide emotional support and security ten hours a day, five days a week, ten months out of the year is not a lot of money.
But Dancy loves her job.
“I love these kids,” said Dancy. “When you’re with those kids, there is nothing like hearing a child say ‘I can read that word, Ms. Dancy!’ and know that that extra help made all of the difference.”
Many of Dancy’s colleagues, she says, work second jobs on top of being a teacher assistant and driving a school bus. And many work during the summer too, trying to make ends meet.
After twenty-six years, Tamarah Hefner says she’d like to be able to retire on her own time table instead of state lawmakers deciding that her job is over this summer.
“I’ve invested a lot of years into this,” said Hefner, who also worries about getting new educators into the profession. “If they keep cutting every time you turn around…classroom funds, programs, retirement benefits…you can’t get new teachers into the system. Other states offer more.”
“They want good test scores and kids to read on grade level,” said Hefner. “But at this rate, I don’t see how it’s going to happen.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]