Every weekday, Charlene DeLaughter wakes up in the dark, around 5:15 a.m. She drives herself and her ten-year-old son from Raleigh, where they live, to Durham’s Lakewood Elementary School, where Sidney is a fifth-grader and DeLaughter is the only counselor for 389 students. Some days, she doesn’t get home until dark.

That’s been her job for two-and-a-half years, crafting a curriculum to address students’ social and emotional needs, collaborating with teachers on instructing children with different learning styles, and visiting classrooms every month—more often in times of crisis, like when Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids spread fear among Lakewood’s immigrant community. (DeLaughter counts at least six students whose relatives were detained by ICE this school year.) 

For that, she earns $47,000 a year. 

From that sum, the single mother deducts student loan payments, rent, and the approximately $300 she spends each year on gifts for her students: little things like stress balls and Yo-Yos. It’s never a choice between buying something for them and buying something for Sidney, she says. She goes without.

“Them first, then me,” she says.

In 2017, Lakewood was identified as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state and nearly taken over by charter operators as part of the Innovative School District program. About 53 percent of Lakewood students are Hispanic, 25 percent are black, and just under 8 percent are white. It’s not uncommon to hear Spanish spoken in the hallways. Some students are the children of refugees or undocumented immigrants. Others come from unstable homes. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

Having more support staff would help students deal with trauma, DeLaughter says. But right now, the burden falls on her and a single social worker. 

And a heavy burden it is. 

“I see a therapist. I make sure that my emotional health is good, because if mine isn’t good, I’m not able to help the students,” DeLaughter says. “I just continue to tell myself I’m doing everything I can.”

She’s not the only school counselor who feels that way. Statewide, according to the Department of Public Instruction, North Carolina schools employ one counselor for every 367 students. The recommended ratio is one counselor for every 250 students.

On Wednesday, as thousands of educators converge on the state legislature for the second straight year, one of their five demands will be for more support staff—more counselors, as well as psychologists, nurses, and social workers—to help students cope with what’s happening outside of school, which, in turn, will help them learn.

Arising amid a wave of teacher walkouts in red states, last year’s teachers rally drew twenty thousand red-shirted educators and supporters to downtown Raleigh demanding better pay and more respect from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. DeLaughter didn’t make it, nor did some of her Lakewood colleagues. They say they were too emotionally drained from fighting off the charter takeover. 

But they’ll be there this year—like at least thirty other school districts across the state, Durham Public Schools will close to allow teachers to march. 

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have been largely dismissive of the rally. Last year, a lawmaker from Union County referred to marchers as “union thugs.” Last week, Senate leader Phil Berger called the North Carolina Association of Educators, which is organizing the event, a “far-left” organization that is “trying to bully school districts into keeping kids out of the classroom, all so the hyper-liberal union can try to get more Democrats elected.”  

It’s unclear how big a role the 2018 march played in Democrats’ success last November, when Republicans lost their legislative supermajorities. 

But Republicans argue that they have increased teacher pay significantly in recent years—some of the highest wage hikes in the country, in fact—pointing to a National Education Association study from March that found that the state’s average teacher salary had jumped from forty-seventh in the country in 2013 to twenty-ninth today. 

That, House Speaker Tim Moore’s office boasted when the NEA report was released, was “an impressive accomplishment for Republican lawmakers.”

Teachers say it hasn’t been enough. 

“Like we should be satisfied that we got a crumb, that’s how I feel,” says Abby Exum, who teaches gifted students at Lakewood Elementary but took a second job as a tutor to make ends meet. “We should be satisfied with a crumb when we didn’t get anything for so long. The crumbs that you’re giving us, yes, thank you, but more needs to happen.”

Governor Cooper’s budget proposal gives teachers a 9 percent raise, but he won’t get his way. 

While the GOP supermajorities are gone, the Republicans are still in charge, and the education funding debate seems likely to play out as a semi-choreographed fiasco: The General Assembly passes a budget. Cooper vetoes it, demanding more money for teachers. There’s a standoff. They settle somewhere in between. 

Republicans began unveiling their budget Monday night. What’s been released so far contains some additional money for education, though it doesn’t specify across-the-board raises for teacher or support staff. Instead, it dangles incentives for teachers who develop ways to improves test scores and offers teachers a $145 stipend for classroom supplies. (A recent survey of Lakewood Elementary teachers found that they spend about $300 a year on supplies out of pocket.) 

On Monday, Moore’s office announced an education-budget-related press conference for Tuesday afternoon, after the INDY goes to press. It’s possible that details of teachers’ raises could be detailed then, ahead of Wednesday’s rally. (See update below.) 

Last year’s budget increased teacher pay by 6.5 percent; the year before, 3.3 percent; the year before that, 4.7 percent. In 2013, Republicans point out, North Carolina ranked at the bottom in the country in teacher pay, but now it’s near the middle—which, adjusting for cost of living, is actually pretty good, they say. 

But those pay hikes don’t tell the full story, says Lakewood second-grade teacher Cara Casey. Nor have they brought the state’s teachers up to national standards. According to the NEA, North Carolina lags about $7,800 behind the projected national average teacher salary of $61,782. 

“[Legislators] are painting a picture for people in the public that’s not real,” Casey says. 

In North Carolina, the state provides teachers a base pay, which counties can supplement. Following the recession, teachers, like all state employees, had their pay cut a half a percentage point in 2009, then saw a two-year pay freeze. While they received a 1.2 percent bump in 2012, they got nothing in 2013. Ever since, the legislature has been playing catchup. 

But even with five straight increases and a sixth likely on the way, teacher pay hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living. North Carolina teachers have an average salary of $53,975; adjusted for inflation, however, that’s about $3,310 less than they did before the recession, according to the Department of Public Instruction. 

And though the mean salary is pushing $54,000, many teachers aren’t making that much. The mean, the NCAE says, is skewed by a large number of long-term teachers at the higher end of the state’s pay scale as well as teachers who live in larger counties that pay higher supplements. 

Indeed, the state’s pay scale maxes out at $52,000. According to the DPI, if you remove local supplements, the state’s average teacher earns just $49,395. 

Funding those supplements has strained larger counties’ budgets. Case in point: Wake County, which has dramatically increased its school supplement since Democrats took over the Board of Commissioners in 2014. County residents have seen their property taxes rise five consecutive years. But even that wasn’t good enough; last year, two commissioners lost their reelection bids to education advocates. 

This year, Wake’s school board has asked for nearly $49 million in new funding. 

When the state moved to take over Lakewood Elementary in 2017, the community rallied behind the school. Eventually, the DPI relented, and Lakewood—along with Durham’s Glenn Elementary—was removed from the Innovative School District. 

After that, the changes were noticeable. The school came together like a family, DeLaughter says. 

The DPI granted Lakewood restart status, allowing it more flexibility with spending and scheduling. Lakewood also became one of four pilot schools in the Bull City Community Schools Partnership, a concept that leverages community relationships and assets to solve problems created by the underfunding of public education.

The school’s performance scores improved dramatically. The school hired two teaching coaches and was able to make its social worker full-time. The local neighborhood association raised money to reimburse teachers $150 each for supplies.

None of that progress can be credited to the General Assembly, says Lakewood Elementary community schools coordinator Anna Grant.

But the neighborhood can’t make up for the school’s share of the more than $170 million in state funding that the Durham County Board of Commissioners says has been cut from the DPS budget since 2008. And that’s left teachers like Casey looking for alternatives, including crowdfunding

“I’m torn,” Casey says. “I wish I didn’t have to [ask], but I also know there’s so many people in this community that want to help us. Our community around us understands our struggle.”

The NCAE has issued five demands for the May 1 march, the first being more support personnel. 

According to DPI data, North Carolina lags the national average in staffing for school psychologists, nurses, and social workers. 

To cite one example: The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that schools nationwide employ one psychologist for every five hundred to seven hundred students. North Carolina schools employ one per 2,083 students. Similarly, while the National Association of Social Workers recommends that school districts have one social worker for every 250 students, North Carolina has 1,081 social workers for 1.6 million students, according to the DPI.

Educators are also asking that school personnel be paid no less than $15 an hour, something other state employees won in last year’s budget, though public school and community college employees were left out. The State Employees Association estimates that this leaves behind about forty-five thousand public school workers, including bus drivers and custodians.

The teachers also want retirement health benefits to be reinstated for future teachers, which the legislature ended last year for teachers who start working in 2021, and pay hikes for teachers with advanced degrees, which North Carolina educators had before 2013. 

Finally, they argue that the General Assembly should expand Medicaid, as they can’t effectively teach kids who come to school sick or stay home because of an illness that could have been treated had their family taken them to a doctor. 

In response, Republicans rolled out a bill last week that would make future school-day rallies like this impossible. Since school districts cited the large number of teachers taking the day off in their decisions to shut down classes, the legislation would forbid teachers from using personal leave unless they can line up a substitute. 

For the teachers who take to downtown Raleigh’s streets on Wednesday, that’s an indication of the kind of respect they get from current legislative leaders.   

“Not much has changed in terms of the general funding for education,” says School for Creative Studies teacher and march organizer Anca Stefan. “We are still woefully below national averages for staffing, for resources in general. What we were able to do [last year] was channel our educators’ voices all throughout the state in an organized way around the ballot box.”

But what the legislature still misses, DeLaughter says, is that it’s not just about teachers’ paychecks. 

They didn’t go into education to get rich. 

“We work hard here, and regardless of how much we get paid, it’s not going to take away from the work that we do,” DeLaughter says. “I’m excited about May 1.”

Update: At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, after the INDY went to press, Speaker Tim Moore announced that the House’s budget proposal will give teachers average 4.8 percent raises, assistant principals 6.3 percent raises, and principals 10 percent raises. The state’s top teachers would make just over $60,000 in base pay under the House’s proposal, while the average teacher salary would increase to $55,600. The House proposal also reinstates the increase for teachers with advanced degrees. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Anca Stefan as a Lakewood teacher. 

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at ltauss@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss. Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at swillets@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.