A bipartisan panel of four state legislators listened to teachers, parents, and students voice their frustrations about low teacher pay, in front of a packed auditorium at Culbreth Middle School on Monday night.

And one of the things they heard was that good teachers were leaving the area.

“I’m not sure there’s another school as great as Culbreth,” said Ashley Risinger. “The staff and teachers here are incredible. And the students and parents here are so supportive, and amaze me with their passion for learning, and their support for teachers. But other than enjoying the places we work, what other incentives are there for us to stay?”

Risinger teaches 8th-grade language arts at Culbreth Middle School. Her husband is also a teacher. They moved to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area from Indiana seven years ago to start their careers. They bought a home. She said they love the area, and love their jobs.

At the end of this school year, they’re leaving North Carolina to go back and teach in Indiana.

Risinger fought back tears as she made that announcement to a hushed auditorium. She was one of five teachers speaking at The Town Hall to Support Public Education.

Risinger told the overflow audience that she and her husband lost around $30,000 because of stagnant teacher pay, and they had no choice but to leave North Carolina.

Four legislators from The North Carolina General Assembly were there to listen, and take questions. The panel included three Orange County Democrats: Rep. Graig Meyer; Rep. Verla Insko; and Sen. Valerie Foushee; and a Guilford County Republican, Rep. Jon Hardister.

They heard accounts of staff members at Culbreth who qualify for food stamps; and how 70 percent of the school’s staff supplement their income with second jobs.

Hardister, the lone Republican on the panel, serves on the NC House Education Committee. He said he agrees that teachers are underpaid.

He pointed out that teacher pay is a bipartisan problem that goes back seven years. He also said he was sorry he voted for his party’s budget last year.

“I voted for the budget last year,” he said. “And I since have come to regret that vote, since I’ve been out listening to parents and visiting classrooms and experiencing firsthand how hard the teachers work.”

Hardister blamed the Senate side of the legislature for slipping items into the budget at the last minute.

He said he advocates eliminating teacher tenure and moving to a contract system. He does, however, oppose taking tenure from those who already earned it.

And he said he’d like to see a return to step raises across the board.

Insko had suggestions for finding some revenue for paying teachers.

“That tax cut that we did last year – it was the state income tax and the corporate tax – it’s a two-step process,” said Insko. “There’s another cut coming up next year. One of the things we can do in the short session is freeze that cut.”

She said that would bring in $250 million. She called that “a good down payment on your pay increases.”

Insko also suggested expanding Medicaid.

“The Federal Government’s going to pay 100 percent of Medicaid over 10 years,” she said. “That would bring $16 billion into our state economy.”

Meyer urged voters to contact their representatives during the upcoming short session of the General Assembly.

“When we start on May 14th, we will be in a race,” he said. “This is a short session to revise the budget and figure out how we’re going to give teachers a raise. And leadership in the General Assembly has a goal of being out of there around June 10th. Now, what’s June 10th?”

“The last day of school,” some in the audience answered.

“It’s the last day of school for just about every public school in the state of North Carolina,” he continued. “So for political expediency, if they want to make decisions without educators being heard, that’s a great day to leave Raleigh.”

He also mentioned North Carolina’s Senate President Pro Tempore when a person in the audience asked how people concerned about low teacher pay could get the governor to listen:

“The governor is not the most important person, or political leader in the state. Phil Berger is. It was Phil Berger’s budget that put all the pieces in that we don’t like.”