Superintendent Mark Johnson can’t seem to win for losing.
Johnson was part of big press conference Wednesday at the state Legislative Building during which he and State Sen. Andy Wells, (R-Catawba) partnered to announce their proposal of a new program to give the state’s 94,000 licensed teachers $400 a year each to buy classrooms supplies.
The announcement could have been a celebratory occasion.
But there was one missing element: Lisa Godwin.
Godwin, the 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, was listed as a press conference participant but decided not to attend because of concern about how the program would be funded.
“I was under the impression it was $400 in new money on top of what districts already receive,” Godwin said in an interview shortly before the State Board of Education began its monthly business meeting.
Godwin, an elementary school teacher in Onslow County, was referring to the nearly $50 million in state dollars school districts in North Carolina are allocated each year to purchase school supplies.
Under Senate Bill 580, announced by Johnson and Wells, about $40 million would be stripped from local school districts and given to teacher who would use the ClassWallet app to spend the money or to claim reimbursements for money they spend out-of-pocket.
Similar programs operate in Florida and New Mexico, officials said.
Johnson struggled to answer when asked by a reporter why Godwin did not attend the press conference.
“I do not have understanding at this time why she’s not here,” Johnson said. “I was told she was not going to be able to make it.”
He said there was “a conversation yesterday” and Godwin was excited about the program.
When she agreed to attend the press conference, Godwin said she believed the program would be funded with money on top of the annual state allocation for school supplies.
“I realized it was just a reallocation of funds,” Godwin said. “It felt like there could be repercussions for districts. Districts could be hurt from a purchasing stand point because they buy so many things in bulk and they have capacity to buy more at a lesser amount. If we took that money away from them that could prohibit them from being able to do that.”
Godwin said there could also be repercussions for teachers if the bill is approved by the General Assembly.
“This $400 is going to run out pretty quick, and they’re (teachers) going to go to their districts and say the need copy paper or toner, and the districts are going to say, sorry you got your $400,” Godwin said. “I don’t want to do anything that would hurt districts or teachers.”
Teachers spend nearly $480 a year of their own money on classroom supplies, according to a study by the National Center of Education Statistics.
So instead of reallocating supply funds, Godwin said she will encourage lawmakers to increase funding.
“We’re already underfunded, period,” Godwin said.
But Godwin’s call for increased funding, runs counter to the reason Wells contends SB 580 was filed.
Wells said school districts across North Carolina have misspent money intended for teacher supplies.
“In the past that $50 million hasn’t gone straight to classroom teachers,” Wells said. “Instead, the money was paid to local school boards, which turns out to be a mistake.”
Figuring out what local school boards spent the money on is difficult, and varies from district-to-district, Wells said.
“The short answer is the bureaucrats used the money to pay for other things on their to-do list and left teachers paying for their own classroom supplies,” he said.
Johnson, who taught high school in Charlotte for two years as part of the Teach for America program before attending law school, said he remembers seldom having enough copy paper.
He said he often dug into his own pockets to buy supplies or relied on donations from organizations such as Classroom Central or Educator Warehouse.
“The N.C. Classroom Supplies Program (SB 580) would allow every teacher to have direct control of $400 for classroom supplies in their classroom,” Johnson said. “Each teacher will be able to determine how to best spend those $400 for their classroom needs.”
Johnson said teachers know best the needs of their students.
“If we truly want to treat teachers as professional, if we truly want to put our money where our trust is, let’s show teachers we trust them to make the right decisions for their classrooms,” Johnson said.
The N.C. School Supplies Program would began next school year if approved by the General Assembly. It would be mandatory for traditional public schools, but charter schools could opt into the program.
The bill’s primary sponsors are Wells, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Surry) and Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Guilford).
A companion bill is expected be filed in the House.
Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, (R-Wilkes), said the program would give teachers flexibility and increase transparency around how school supply dollars are spent.
“This is very empowering for teachers,” Elmore said. “In this technology age, we actually will create a program that has more accountability than what we do now and more transparency.”
Meanwhile, Godwin cautioned teachers, who she said will understandably be excited about receiving $400 for classroom supplies.
“On the surface, when they hear about it, they’re going to think, ‘Wow! This is awesome.’ ” Godwin said. “But $400 isn’t going to get your very far in a classroom.”