State Superintendent Mark Johnson doesn’t support May 1 teacher protest march

Teachers rallied in Raleigh on May 16 for better pay and more funding for public schools.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t attend last year’s teacher protest march and rally for higher pay and more school funding.

And he isn’t likely to make it to the second march planned for May 1.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, said in a statement Thursday that he can’t support a protest that “forces schools to close.”

“The protest organizers should choose a non-school day,” Johnson said. “The legislature will be in session in Raleigh for at least another three months, a time period that spans dozens of days students are not scheduled to be in school, including spring break and summer break.”

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Johnson made similar remarks last year. Instead of attending the teacher rally, he planned a trip to the coast to visit Craven County Schools.

Mark Jewell, president of the N. C. Association of Educators (NCAE), announced the May 1 event during the group’s annual convention over the weekend.

Here’s what he had to say about Johnson’s remark:

“Superintendent Johnson underestimates the critical needs that face our public schools today. Time is of the essence so that we do not lose a generation of students with underfunded, starving, under-resourced public schools. The state legislature sets the schedule for the budget process, and our rally is meant to impact the budget discussions as early as possible.”

NCAE President Mark Jewell

Jen Mangrum, an education professor at UNC Greensboro who is running for State Superintendent, called Johnson’s comments about the May 1 rally shortsighted.

“Ultimately, we want to do what’s right for teachers and students overtime,” Mangrum said.

She noted that Johnson attended and spoke at a “School Choice” rally in 2018.

“That is unacceptable,” Mangrum said. “How can you go to that and not be present for 20,000 teachers.”

James Barrett, a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education who is also running for State Superintendent, said the ball is in state lawmakers’ court.

He said the General Assembly should act on the NCAE’s demands to avoid the teacher march and rally.

“It’s the General Assembly’s fault that schools have to be closed to get people to listen to teachers,” Barrett said.

School districts across the state were forced to close on May 16 because thousands of educators took personal days to attend the rally.

Johnson’s absence didn’t sit too well with many educators.

Shannon Bellezza, a former teacher who now instructs future teachers at N.C. State University, carried a sign during the march that read, “Where’s Mark?”

Bellezza was referring Johnson.

In his statement Thursday, Johnson said a protest march can be just as effective during non-school hours.

“Closing schools affects not only students’ learning and nutrition, but also parents, other school employees, and other teachers,” Johnson said.

He insisted that teachers in North Carolina are being heard.

“We have more work to do, but we listen to educators’ concerns and have been responding with efforts to raise teacher pay, provide state funding for school construction needs, reduce high-stakes testing, improve school safety efforts, and more,” Johnson said.

Jewell disagrees.

“All of the things we marched for last year are not being addressed by the General Assembly,” Jewell said earlier this week. “It’s time for us during this long session to remind them [lawmakers] that education still needs to be a priority.”

Here is what Jewell told teachers attending the NCAE convention:

“I’m sad to say, we still have enemies on Jones Street; we’re fighting even now, for a budget that will prioritize student resources, educator pay and school safety, Some people still stand in the way of those basic, fundamental values. So, it’s time we paid them another visit. Just in case they need a reminder that we’re still here, and they still have a job to do.”

The NCAE demands includes these five items this year:

  • Additional funding to adequately staff schools with psychologists, social worker, nurses and librarians.
  • Restoration of extra pay for advanced degrees.
  • Increasing the minimum wage for all school personnel to $15 an hour and a 5 percent cost of living raise for school employees and retirees.
  • Expansion of Medicaid to improve the health of students and their families.
  • Restoration of retiree health benefits for teachers hired after 2021.
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