Senate candidates differ on education

Sep. 03, 2014 @ 09:57 AM

The Republican state senator who represents Caldwell County defended his record Tuesday night in a debate, while his Democratic opponent stressed his priorities of education, environmental conservation and economic development

But during many of their answers to questions in the debate, hosted at the Caldwell County Public Library in Lenoir by the Caldwell TEA Party, Sen. Dan Soucek and Jim Sponenberg seemed to be largely in agreement. Both said it would be unconstitutional to enforce Islamic Sharia law, said they support the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the states' rights of the 10th Amendment, and they said they don't think illegal aliens should be issued drivers' licenses. 

The main talking point of the night, though, was education -- specifically teachers' pay and state budget cuts.

When asked about the Senate's job of managing the state's community college system, Sponenberg said there have been serious issues, especially with the repercussions of recent tax reform, which he said he would rather have seen happen in a more gradual time scale, so revenues weren't cut all at once.

Sponenberg, a former banking executive who has not served in elective office before, asked how many of those attending the debate were teachers, and about 10 raised their hands. He asked who had gotten a 17-percent raise, the highest amount in the budget that the House and Senate passed last month. No one said they did, so Sponenberg asked about the lower levels of raises, backing it down to 7 percent, 3, 2 and finally 1 percent,when some teachers raised their hands again, with some saying they had received pay cuts instead.

(Soucek called the News-Topic on Wednesday and said he consulted with the legislature's fiscal staff that morning and confirmed that no teacher should have received a pay cut and every teacher should have received some sort of pay increase, but some school districts have been miscalculating the effect of the pay changes. In those cases, the pay can be recalculated and the teachers' pay restored retroactively, Soucek said. "Unequivocally, every teacher was given a pay raise," he said.)

Sponenberg said his mother, wife, daughter and son-in-law are all teachers, and "not a single one of those is very happy about what's going on."

Soucek, who is serving his second term in the Senate, disputed Sponenberg's contention that tax reform resulted in less revenue, saying a cut in the rate of increase of revenue is not a cut, it's just a smaller rate of growth. He said the challenge with fixing the state's tax system is that it's an antiquated system derived in the 1930s.

He said difficult decisions had to be made in the short term to create a sound, long-term economic policy, which he said is the best way to really take care of the education system. He said that after each budget he's helped pass, he has received a personal thank-you note from the president of the community college system.

When asked what they would say to a group of educators' who have concerns over the loss of teachers' assistants, changes to the pay scale, the potential loss of tenure job protections, the use of taxpayer vouchers to help pay private-school tuition and more, Soucek again defended the Senate's actions, saying the Senate looked more and more at how to attract new teachers and reward effective teachers. But part of his argument was that longevity pay -- a bonus that had been paid to teachers in a lump sum at the end of the year -- has been added to teachers' base pay, and teachers in the crowd disputed him as he said it.

"The most important thing is a quality teacher in the classroom," he said, explaining that cuts were made to teachers' assistants among the upper grades to add $3,000 to teachers' salaries, saying quality teachers are more critical than teachers' assistants.