Education
1:15 am
Tue June 10, 2014

Moral Monday, Phil Berger, And The Surprise 'Teacher Couch Summit'

Phil Berger
Senate Leader Phil Berger meets with Moral Monday protesters.
Credit Dave DeWitt

Bryan Proffitt fully expected to go to jail Monday night. He spent most of the day at Hillside High School, where he teaches history, proctoring exams. A few hours after the final school bell, he was in an upstairs auditorium at the state Legislature, rallying supporters.

“We’re generally a pleasant and rule-following bunch,” he said. “But when you attack our students, when you threaten our schools and our communities and their families and you bully us and our co-workers, than you’d better prepare for what happens next.”

What happened next was the usual Moral Monday script, the same game plan that’s been in place for more than a year . beginning with this small meeting of supporters before heading outside to a larger rally on Halifax Mall.

Protesters were here to speak out against the most recent Senate budget proposal. It gives teachers an eleven percent average raise, but cuts thousands of teacher assistants and forces teachers to trade in their due process rights – if they had earned them – to get the salary increase.

'We feel betrayed by the politicians that this is their duty to support public education, and they're not doing it.' - Teacher Bill Notarnicola

“We feel betrayed by the politicians that this is their duty to support public education, and they’re not doing it,” said Bill Notarnicola, a teacher at Enloe High School who has spent 27 years in education.

By Moral Monday standards, it wasn’t a large rally this time around. About a quarter of the Mall was full, but the educators and others who braved the heat and threat of storms were passionate.

Sarah Cade was near the front speakers. She is just finishing her first year teaching at Leesville Road High School and worries that she won’t be able to stay in her home state.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I love this state. I love these kids. I don’t want to leave them. But if I can’t pay my bills in ten years, I’m not sure. I think that is a last resort option. I’m not giving up yet, that’s for sure.”

At the end of the rally, the crowd parted and 15 protesters walked toward the Legislature. Bryan Proffitt, the Hillside High teacher, was the first one through the doors.

“They want to meet in the middle of the night, rush things through. We’re going to demand they have a conversation. I’m kind of in battle mode right now.”

A few minutes later, the group of 15 made it to Senate Leader Phil Berger’s door and knocked.

Senator Berger wasn’t in his office. That wasn’t unexpected, so the protestors went to the next item on the script. They sat down in front of Berger’s door until the Senate session ended. A half hour later, with no Berger in sight, the Capitol Police came through with a polite but stern order: The building was closing and everyone had to leave.

The protesters began to get ready to get arrested. But here's where script took an unexpected turn.

The protesters began to get ready to get arrested. But here’s where script took an unexpected turn. Just a few seconds later, Senator Berger came around the corner, pulled some couches into a circle, and offered to have a discussion.

And that’s exactly what they did. For more than an hour and a half, Berger and the protesters discussed education policy and the challenges facing teachers. There were some heated moments, and some passionate disagreements.

For the most part, all parties were respectful. The protestors whittled their list to three items they wanted addressed: they wanted tenure back; they wanted teacher assistants restored; and they wanted Berger to hold a series of public meetings on education. At the end, Berger committed to nothing more than another conversation the next day to consider further meetings.

And instead of being led out in handcuffs, the 15 protesters walked out the front of the building, nodding to Capitol Police officers, to meet their supporters.

Proffitt spoke first: “So we sat down and we had a good conversation, which to my understanding this is the first time this has happened in the last couple of years. So I think this represents a win for the movement because I think we put enough pressure on them that they realized they had to have a conversation.”

When he was done, Bryan Proffitt stepped behind the crowd and tried to gather himself. Someone handed him a bottle of water and the sweater he thought he had lost, and he finally took a deep breath.

He admitted the night had not gone like he thought it would.

“Talk is cheap,” he said.” There needs to be a real opening. But if there’s an opening, we’ll take it. But if it means the threat of arrest, if that means risking arrest again, and putting negative pressure on them again, then we’ll be back.”

>> Dave DeWitt and Reema Khrais live-tweeted the meeting. Read the story that the tweets tell here.