Education supporters pack Mathews courthouse

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jan 30, 2019 - 02:18 PM

Photo: Martha Barker, holding sign at left, and Amy Bohannon Stewart, center, were among the many teachers, former teachers, and community members who attended the Mathews County Board of Supervisors public meeting on the budget Tuesday to voice their support for increased school funding. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Martha Barker, holding sign at left, and Amy Bohannon Stewart, center, were among the many teachers, former teachers, and community members who attended the Mathews County Board of Supervisors public meeting on the budget Tuesday to voice their support for increased school funding. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Photo: Most of the people at the meeting were there to support full funding of the school budget. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Most of the people at the meeting were there to support full funding of the school budget. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Photo: Second grader Carter Hayes was the youngest speaker on Tuesday night. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Second grader Carter Hayes was the youngest speaker on Tuesday night. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Mathews County’s historic courthouse was a sea of red Tuesday night, as teachers and their supporters turned out en masse for the Mathews County Board of Supervisors’ first budget public meeting of the 2019-2020 budget year.

In the past, such meetings have seen attendance by only a handful of department and agency heads, but this one was standing-room-only.

Teachers spoke passionately about their love for their profession and for Mathews County, but decried the loss of qualified teachers and the inability to recruit new ones because of a salary scale that they said is the lowest in the area.

“Last year we lost six professionals to better paying jobs in other school systems,” said Thomas Hunter Middle School teacher Allie Bridge Robins, “because for a relatively easy commute they can make significantly more money.”

Robins said that teachers had for years “admitted that keeping up with bigger divisions is something we struggle to do,” but at the same time, they acknowledged that their salaries were at least comparable to neighboring Middlesex County. However, the Middlesex salary scale “made significant gains” last year, said Robins, citing specific pay differences. A Mathews teacher with 15 years’ experience makes $5,000 less than a teacher in either Middlesex or Gloucester and $8,000 less than a West Point teacher, said Robins, while a Mathews teacher with 30 years’ experience makes less than $53,000, compared to $60,705 in Middlesex and Gloucester and $63,000 in West Point.

Teacher Melissa Maggioncalda pointed to overcrowded elementary school classrooms, a loss of teacher assistants, outdated textbooks and limited technology.

“We see walls that need to be painted, roofs that continue to leak, and classrooms that need renovations,” she said, and she spoke of teachers holding down second jobs while unfilled teaching positions are being held by substitutes.

Lee-Jackson Elementary School teacher and Mathews native Christina Pope Tomcany said that she had returned to Mathews to teach after college because she wanted to be part of the community. She said she has to work a second job as a waitress to help make ends meet because her salary increases as a teacher don’t keep up with the cost of living.

“While I spend my days teaching other people’s children to read,” she said, “there are nights that I am not home to simply read with my own children due to my much-needed second job.”

Tomcany said that the pay raise being requested is “a reflection of years of our pay scale remaining the same, budget cycle after budget cycle, instead of small increases being given over the last decade.” She addressed individual supervisors by name, reminding supervisor Charles Ingram that she had been in his shop many times as a child for her brother to get a haircut, and that she had picked flowers in Ingram’s daffodil fields. She told board chairman G.C. Morrow that she had grown up in his neighborhood and attended church with members of his family.

“I am not asking for you to listen to the pleas of strangers,” she said. “I’m asking for you to listen to the requests of people who care about this county as much as you do.”

Second grade teacher Stacie Hurst Wiatt said that, in an era when children risk falling behind if they don’t enter kindergarten already knowing the alphabet and letter sounds, overcrowded classrooms are having a negative impact on individual learning. Teachers began seeing a drop in the number of students who were beginning the year on grade level after Lee-Jackson lost four teachers and numerous paraprofessionals at one time, she said.

“For years, I have spent hours trying to better plan and organize my small groups, assignments, etc., trying to find a solution to reach each student,” Wiatt said, “but I continue to fail because the real solution is not one that I can fix.”

Elementary school teacher Ashley Callis McBurney said that, after 14 years of teaching in Richmond, she moved back to Mathews with her late husband in 2013 and took a salary cut because “I wanted to move back here so badly and start a family.”

When her husband died unexpectedly, she said, “it was shocking to me how little money I had left each month after paying bills, considering I have a master’s degree.” But she said she and the other teachers who returned to Mathews “know that the quality of education our children are receiving is not up to par with the education we received.”

“Last year we were unable to find a kindergarten teacher until December college graduations,” McBurney said, “and this year we had two positions with zero applicants and several positions without qualified applicants.”

Mathews residents also spoke out in support of higher funding for the schools. Former teacher Judy Rowe said that, while Mathews prides itself on being self-sufficient and “operating on a shoestring,” she said, “that shoestring is frayed and about to break.” The schools understood when cuts were made after the economic downturn, she said, but now the economy has grown and “wages haven’t kept pace.” She spoke of Mathews students paying to play sports, paying for dual enrollment classes, and paying for driving school while other localities provide these benefits free of charge.

“Maybe the population is shrinking because people can’t afford to send their children to school here,” Rowe said.

David Jones of Mathews said that his philosophy as a business owner is “if I want good people, I have to pay good wages.” He said he had lots of budget concerns, including the sheriff’s office and school salaries.

“I want Mathews to be successful,” Jones said, “so we’ve got to have a good business climate … We won’t be able to keep good teachers, good deputies and good employees if we can’t pay them.”

Bohannon resident Eric Engler, who volunteers with a nonprofit that buys books for school children, said that the library collections in Mathews are over 20 years old and that the media centers are understaffed.

“We are attempting to impart knowledge with an understaffed library with obsolete collections,” he said. “The most important part of education is literacy; that’s the foundation and pathway to every other subject.”

Second grader Carter Hayes bravely talked about the things she has to do in school, characterizing them as a part of her job, and she mentioned all the teachers and staff members who help her to do that job.

“We need to pay to keep these people and all other teachers so they will stay with us here in Mathews County,” she said. “Please do your job and give an okay to the school board budget so we can pay our teachers more money.”

Susan Krista of Ridgefield Road spoke of growing up in Mathews and raising her children in the county. She said the schools were good all of those years. She and her daughter, Tricia, moved away for a number of years, she said, but decided to come home, with her daughter taking a $15,000 pay cut to do so.

“The amount I see Tricia buying out of her own pocket to help teach her kids is ridiculous,” said Krista. “This community, this board of supervisors, has got to do something to support our schools and teachers.”

Pam Koebach spoke passionately of “that one special teacher” that everyone had in their life, and she told supervisors that she didn’t know “where y’all got lost,” but that “you have to remember where you came from and where you want your children to go.”

“I have a business,” said Koebach. “Raise my taxes.”

Not all those speaking out Tuesday night fully embraced the proposed teacher raise. Jerry Sadler of Mathews said he wanted teachers to be fairly compensated, but said the 13 percent pay raise they’re requesting is “ludicrous.” He said it would cost an additional $1.75 million, and said there had to be other solutions, such as developing small businesses in the county. He questioned the fairness of across-the-board increases and whether the schools conducted performance evaluations “to see if they deserve a raise.” He said that seniors can’t afford increased taxes.

“I don’t know why you’re wearing red,” said Sadler of the “Red for Ed” movement, “but I know lots of people in the county are seeing red.”

Retired teacher Mary Kathryn Diggs retorted with, “I see red with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.”

“As a senior, I’m willing to have my taxes raised,” she said.

Additional residents who spoke in favor of increased school funding were Kathy Purdue, Mike Beavers and Melanie Procopio.

After the public comments, Supervisor Pepper Love told those present that he couldn’t disagree with them.

“It’s hard to raise taxes for everybody,” he said, “and that’s the job we’ve got to do. It’s just how much and how far we can go. I’ll do the best I can.”