Thousands protest at the legislature for more resources for public education.

RALEIGH — Thousands of teachers, other school personnel and their supporters filled the public spaces around the North Carolina legislature Wednesday to tell lawmakers to give more resources to public education.

The March for Students and Rally for Respect drew so many teachers that at least 41 school districts throughout the state canceled classes, including those in Cumberland, Hoke and Robeson counties.

 The red-shirted protesters marched across downtown Raleigh in the morning and gathered around the Legislative Building,  where state lawmakers conduct business. Some went inside to meet their lawmakers and attend House and Senate sessions.

The lines to enter the Legislative Building wrapped around its sides — the structure that covers much of a city block — as people waited to pass through newly-installed security screening checkpoints.

By the afternoon, protesters filled a public pedestrian mall across the street from the Legislative Building for their rally. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appeared and made a short speech. He touted his proposal to boost North Carolina teacher pay to the national average in four years by putting off tax cuts scheduled to take effect next year.

A downtown Raleigh merchants group estimated the crowd’s peak size at 19,000, The News & Observer newspaper reported.

It’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled legislature will accede to any of the teachers’ demands. The legislature has boosted teacher salaries over the past four years and has already approved a 6.2 percent raise for the upcoming year.

“The average teacher pay raise since 2013 is 19 percent!" state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. "And there is more to be done!”

Lewis, who is an upper-ranked Republican,later  posted a photograph of himself posing in the Legislative Building with Harnett County teachers who participated in the day’s protest activities. Lewis said he had a great time meeting them and looked forward to seeing them again.

The teachers have a long list of concerns. Pay is just one of them.

Former Fayetteville E.E. Smith High School English teacher Jahara Davis, who now teaches in Charlotte, said budget cuts in Charlotte are cutting the number of teachers there. The remaining teachers will face larger class sizes in the fall, she said.

“Every seat is full in my classroom," Davis said. "I have 30.”

Young teachers have been quitting because they get burned out," Davis said,  and because of the pay.

Teachers from Robeson County said they need more support.

“The schools, they don’t get what they need," said second-grade teacher Maritza Perez of Piney Grove Elementary in Lumberton. "The textbooks are outdated and falling apart.”

When teachers run out of photocopying supplies for classroom materials, they print the materials at their own expense, Perez said.

”We have to pay for our own ink,” she said.

Teachers from Harnett County attended the rally despite their schools remaining open Wednesday. Each teacher paid $50 to their school system to obtain substitute teachers to cover their classes.

One said she is concerned that the state is curtailing the retirement benefits for future teachers. That will make it less attractive for people to teach in North Carolina, she said. Teachers will move to other states with better benefits rather than have careers here, she predicted.

Some critics perceived the rally as a Democratic and pro-union event, and described it as a strike. They noted that it follows similar events in several other states, where teachers demanded better pay and benefits.

Robeson County teacher Robin Lowery seemed offended by the suggestion that this was a Democratic Party event.

“Ain’t no Democrat told me to come out here and support the teachers,” he said.

Some North Carolina teachers belong to the North Carolina Association of Educators and have local chapters of that union-like organization in their districts. But by law, they cannot strike or engage in collective bargaining with the government here.

Some participants carried pro-union signs, such as one that said, “Voting is a human right, but there’s more power in a strike.”

Democratic state Rep. Billy Richardson of Fayetteville participated in the morning march and afternoon rally. He promoted legislation he filed last year to boost teacher pay and provide other resources to educators.

Republicans who control the legislature ignore  teachers at their peril, Richardson said.

“What I saw out there today was not Democrat or Republican," he said. "I saw a policy movement. And I think this policy movement is going to fundamentally change this state.”

Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at pwoolverton@fayobserver.com and 910-486-3512.