WAGRAM — During a Monday night forum hosted by the Scotland County Civic League and members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, speakers deemed budget cuts to education “embarrassing,” called newly-passed voter ID laws “voter suppression,” and lamented the state’s decision to opt out of the option to expand Medicaid coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Charles Graham, a Pembroke native and Lumberton resident who spent more than 31 years in education and now represents Robeson County, spent several moments telling the about 50 gathered at Nazareth Missionary Baptist Church how cuts to education have manifested themselves in the state’s classrooms, saying that there is not enough money to maintain services now offered or pay teachers the money they deserve.
“It has really created a morale problem in our teachers and our children, and what we stand for in this state in terms of quality education,” he said. “… There is less support, less staff, and we are forcing teachers to do more with less.”
North Carolina’s ranking among states has fallen to 49th for education spending, he said, just above Mississippi, and can no longer compete with surrounding states who are giving educators a better deal.
Rick Stout, superintendent of Scotland County Schools, was invited to speak by Rep. Garland Pierce, president of the Black Caucus who represents Hoke, Richmond, Robeson and Scotland counties. Stout said that the 1 percent raise given to teachers in the last six years has not kept up with cost of living, which has “skyrocketed.”
Jessica Holmes, of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the state is ranked 48th in the nation for teacher pay, adding that several members of the association qualify for food stamps and others have a hard time making ends meet. Holmes said the state is the only one in the nation that does not compensate teachers for attaining a master’s degree.
“I am a born and bred North Carolinian,” she said. “I love my state. It is embarrassing that our teachers are leaving our state to go to South Carolina.”
Both Graham and Holmes chastised a pilot program included in the budget that allocated $10 million for private school vouchers. Holmes said if the program was meant to help the poor, it would have included allocations for transportation to and from a private school and a free or reduced meal program, both of which are offered by public schools.
Holmes, raised by her grandmother in a small town, said that public school is the only choice many people, including herself, had growing up.
“This program is not for minorities,” she said. “This is not for poor people. … When we sit on our behinds and let them dismantle public education, that makes people like me impossible.”
Voter ID laws
Jeremy Collins, a fellow of the Southern Coalition of Southern Justice, told the mostly black audience that the law which “gutted” the Voting Rights Act was meant to keep minorities, young people and the elderly from the polls. He agreed with Pierce, who said the law might as well have been labeled “voter suppression.”
“What you immediately saw on the news around the county was different jurisdictions rushing to pass discriminatory, oppressive legislation that they knew would not pass (under the Voting Rights Act),” he said.
“This bill was designed to make sure that people who either look like us or think about issues the way we think about them would be less likely to vote.”
Collins said early voting allowed young people and minorities to vote in “alarming” numbers, and the cutting back of that period was meant to further stop the flow of blacks to the polls.
“This was not to prevent voter fraud, because it doesn’t exist,” he said. “Trust me, I’ve done the research. This is not created in answer to a problem. It creates a problem.”
During the question session, Collins addressed a concern that those needing assistance to vote were whisked away from a friend or family member as soon as they entered the building and possibly steered to vote for a certain candidate. Collins said that there are representatives of the coalition at polling sites who could offer assistance.
“We’re relying on you to tell us when local boards of elections make changes, or when they move the door from a convenient place to where no one can see it or when they tell people who are standing in line at 7:30 that because they’re not in the building, they can’t vote,” he said. “We need you to be the eyes and ears in the community.”
Peter Grear, a Wilmington attorney, said that unless voters made a change, “round 2” of suppression was sure to come.
Affordable Care Act
Speaking on behalf of Sen. Kay Hagan, community liaison Joyce Mitchell said that the Affordable Care Act was designed for those who could not afford to purchase health care — but Pierce said the state’s decision to opt out of a Medicaid expansion that would have insured 500,000 in North Carolina has left a gap that no one is quite sure how to fill.
Those who will be left uninsured in Scotland County, according to Terrence Williams, president of the county NAACP, is 8,910 people — or 27 percent of the county’s population. Williams asked Pierce if the caucus had any hope in convincing Gov. Pat McCrory to consider accepting the expansion, to which Pierce said he and his staff have tried to show him the “folly” of his decision to no avail.
“Some of ya’ll family, some of ya’ll friends, some of ya’ll church family would have had insurance had this passed,” he said. “… Think of the people tonight who can not go to the doctor in the morning, or go see a doctor, or have surgery, because they don’t have insurance. … Ya’ll do know people who can not go to the doctor because they do not have health care.”
In an impassioned closure that drew on Pierce’s experience at the pulpit, the representative said he and others planned to show up at the governor’s mansion to ask McCrory how can enjoy repairs to his new bathroom when unemployment benefits for many will end the week before the holiday.
“There is a group of us who plan to be at the governor’s mansion on Dec. 23 to ask him how in the world can he have a good Christmas as so many citizens in the state of North Carolina who have lost their unemployment insurance a week before Christmas? How in the world can he eat cookies and drink punch, and fix his bathroom, when so many citizens of North Carolina have lost their benefits?”