Delaware Teacher Center closing: Budget cuts blamed for shutting down all nine locations in state

DOVER — Some Delaware teachers are about to be spending more of their own money on classroom supplies and learning aids.

The Delaware Teacher Center, which operates nine locations throughout the state that assist educators in preparing materials for lessons and offer professional development courses, is shutting down.

The Teacher Center functions in a way like a Staples or Office Depot, providing educators with all sorts of supplies.

Budget-writing lawmakers eliminated the entire allocation of $423,000 for the center earlier this year to reduce costs in the midst of a budget crunch. Without that funding the facilities can’t afford to buy supplies and pay staff.

The director of the 36-year-old center says the cut will have an outsized impact.

Citing laminators, which can cost more than $1,000, Misty Yencer noted it is “more fiscally responsible to have centers throughout the state” where teachers can go to laminate papers rather than buy a machine for every school.

Teachers working in the Delaware Teaching Center, from left, Nichole Irwin, Cassandra Garton, Beth Paris and the Director of Delaware Teaching Center, Misty Yencer at Holy Cross School on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

On Tuesday, several teachers were at the Dover center, located at Holy Cross School, laminating papers, making posters and copying materials in preparation for the upcoming school year.

With all 19 districts going back by Sept. 7, time is of the essence for educators busy crafting lesson plans and visual aids.

The closures especially impact New Castle County teachers: The current northernmost location of an active center is in Dover, meaning some teachers must drive an hour one way to have access to free laminating, printing, copying and other services.

The centers are a tremendously valuable service, according to Holy Cross teacher Cathi Bolton.

“I was in a panic when I found out that we weren’t going to have the Teacher Center because I was thinking the money that’s going to come out of my pocket,” Ms. Bolton said.

The National School Supply and Equipment Association reported that for the 2012-2013 school year, the typical teacher nationwide spent $945 of his or her own money on classroom supplies and instructional material.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee in the education, training, and library occupations receives a salary of $53,700 in Delaware.

The elimination of all funding left many educators blindsided.

“Since this has happened I take, I don’t even know, on any given day, three to four phone calls, emails from teachers,” Ms. Yencer, who has overseen the center for about two years, said. “I’ve had teachers crying on the phone, ‘What am I supposed to do, I already spend this much money on classroom supplies because they’ve reduced our budget.’”

A few facilities will continue to operate, although with reduced hours. Lake Forest School District, which has staffed the location in its district for years, will keep doing so. The center at Delaware Technical Community College’s Owens Campus in Georgetown will also remain open, as will the Dover and Woodbridge School District locations, although the latter will only be usable by Woodbridge teachers.

The center doesn’t just offer supplies at no cost — it also provides professional development courses to teachers free of charge. An educator must take courses to renew his or her teaching license every five years.

The governor’s proposed budget, initially unveiled in January, included a 10-percent cut in funding for the Teacher Center. After some planning, Ms. Yencer said, the center’s administration figured out ways to absorb the hit and breathed a “sigh of relief.”

Then came a May Joint Finance Committee meeting where lawmakers zeroed out the funding, despite lobbying from teachers.

Ms. Yencer was also left frustrated by the fact that, according to her, lawmakers and budget officials initially failed to inform her of the cut. She was then left in limbo for several weeks, unsure of whether she still had a job, she said.

Eventually, she learned her position — which state payroll records say paid about $92,000 in 2016 — will be funded through the end of the fiscal year on June 30 with Office of Management and Budget contingency funds.

The center’s 12 other employees, however, are not covered by OMB because they are part-time. Without adequate staffing, the centers in their current form are doomed.

Ms. Yencer said she is working with districts in hopes of getting volunteers who can staff the centers and is still optimistic about the prospect of funding being restored by the General Assembly in the next budget.

“In my mind, I’m not thinking ‘shut down, shut down.’ I’m thinking ‘fight,’” she said.

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