Heath Morrison came to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with a reputation for his work with the Nevada state legislature, and he's worn out the pavement between here and Raleigh since taking this job two years ago.
But Wednesday morning's Senate walkout as Morrison prepared to speak to the budget conference committee was a first for him.
The senators weren't objecting to the CMS superintendent personally. They were protesting the House members' insistence on summoning three superintendents to talk about the harm that would come from the Senate proposal to cut teacher assistants.
Morrison voiced gratitude that the Senate, House and governor's plans include teacher raises, but said the Senate plan would cost CMS 817 assistant jobs. Assistants average about $19,000 a year, he said, describing them as "some of the best bangs for our buck that we have in our state." If they lose their jobs, Morrison said, they could end up collecting $14,000 a year in unemployment and health benefits from the state. Giving up their skills to save $5,000 a year is "not a good return on investment," he told the House members who remained.
In response to another question from Tillis, Morrison said that the Senate plan, which provides the largest teacher raises, would require going back to Mecklenburg County commissioners for more money or cutting $6 million to $7 million from the 2014-15 budget to match those raises for teachers paid with county money.
When Frank Till, Cumberland County's superintendent, spoke about the importance of teacher assistants, Tillis posed what he described as "a slightly fairer choice:" Would he prefer the House plan, which gives raises averaging 5 percent, or the Senate plan, where raises average 11 percent but teacher assistants and other aspects of public education are cut?
"I'd rather not make draconian cuts and have a smaller raise," Till said. He added that he'd prefer to see the state raise more revenue, but said he understood that legislators don't consider that an option.
"We agree on that," Tillis said with a laugh. (By the way, if you want to listen in on legislative discussions, check the House and Senate calendars near the top of the General Assembly web page, then find the appropriate audio link.)
Morrison said afterward he wasn't offended by the walkout: "I had a number of Senate members come out and chat on the way out, and thanked me for what we are doing in CMS and for coming up to testify," he emailed in response to my query. "They wanted me to know that their issue was respecting the rules they had established (with) the House not a lack of respect for the superintendents and teachers speaking."