Gov. Roy Cooper detailed his goals for the state’s education system and recognized teachers for the roles they play in students’ lives during the Partners in Education Spring Luncheon Tuesday in New Bern.

Cooper joined area educators, business leaders, and elected officials at the Riverfront Convention Center for the annual event. Cooper led off his comments by announcing that he had named Craven County native Merrie Jo Alcoke as the representative of the governor’s Eastern Office.

“So if there’s any problems in state government Merrie Jo will fix it,” Cooper joked.

The governor also announced that Partners in Education would offer a new, one-time grant of $3,000 to Craven County public school principals for the 2017-18 school year. The focus of the grant is literacy.

Cooper, who grew up in Nash County, said he learned the benefits of public education at an early age.

“My mom was a public school teacher," he said. "I go all over North Carolina and every once in awhile someone will come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to pay you a compliment. Your mamma was the best teacher I ever had.’ Public education matters.”

Cooper said when he speaks to business leaders about coming to North Carolina, their main concern is the quality and education of the state’s workforce.

“When I’m trying to recruit good jobs to North Carolina, when I’m trying to get companies to expand, the first thing they ask me is not ‘What is your corporate tax rate?’ The first thing they ask is ‘Do you have people that can perform the jobs that I create? Do you have that educated, well trained workforce?," said Cooper. “That is why those of you in education are doing such important work.”

Despite a number of high profile disagreements with Republican leadership in the General Assembly, Cooper said he was encouraged by the compromises that had been reached in economic development and infrastructure.

“People ask me why I do this. I tell them I want a North Carolina where the people are better educated, where they are healthier, and where they have more money in their pockets and the opportunities to live a more abundant and purposeful life,” Cooper commented.

Public education must be at the forefront of the state’s budget priorities, said Cooper.

“I recently spoke at Northern Nash High School, and what I told them was that over half the jobs of their workforce career haven’t even been created yet," he said. "We need to make sure our students have the critical thinking skills to be able to enter a new and ever-changing workforce.”

That reality poses a challenge to the state’s public schools, Cooper explained.

“They need our help more than ever,” he remarked, “and they need state government to step up. ... Instead of another corporate tax cut, instead of another tax break that benefits the wealthy, we have to invest in public education.”

Cooper said his goal is to make North Carolina one of the top 10 most educated states by 2025.

“We can do that if we invest and pay attention to our children, from birth all the way through higher education,” he said.

Cooper said his recent budget proposal includes funding for the state’s Smart Start program and pre-kindergarten slots. His budget also includes an additional $20 million to schools to “provide flexibility with personnel,” said Cooper.

“I want to make sure North Carolina is number one in the Southeast in teacher salary in three years and to at least the national average in five years,” he said.

The state needs to significantly increase the number of citizens with college degrees and certifications to meet the demands of the new technology-based economy, said Cooper.

“The expense is not that much for free community college, to get that affordable education for people and prepare them for these jobs,” he commented. “Higher education is not only in our Constitution, it’s in our DNA as North Carolinians.”

Some of the expenses currently shouldered by local school systems should be borne by the state, Cooper asserted.

“I propose not only increases in teacher salaries, 10 percent over the next two years applied across the board, but I provided for a $150 per year stipend for every teacher. ... We know they pay for school supplies out of your pocket,” he said.

Following Cooper’s remarks, he was presented with a Carolina blue cake in celebration of his 60th birthday.

The annual Partners in Education event helps raise money for Craven County schools through PIE grant programs. The organization awarded more than $120,000 through a variety of grants and programs during the 2016-17 school year, PIE President Don Brinkley said.

During the luncheon, a check from the Bosch Community Fund and Duke Energy Foundation was presented to Craven County Schools and PIE for $25,000 each, for a total of $50,000, to fund a STEM lab at Bridgeton Elementary.

Several awards were also presented during the event. The Cheryl Marteney Memorial Volunteer Leadership Award was awarded to Kim Scott, assistant principal at Oaks Road Elementary and Catherine Alligood, principal at A.H. Bangert Elementary. The PIE Outstanding Leadership Award went to Dr. Meghan Doyle, superintendent of Craven County Schools. There were three PIE Excellence Awards handed out. The awards went to Weyerhaeuser, Jim Okonek and Paul Tingle. The Distinguished Alumni Award went to Dr. Cheryl Wilson, assistant superintendent of Instruction.