Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NHCS preparing $8.76M endowment grant, county pushes for ‘favorable’ consideration

A nod from the New Hanover County Community Endowment could help alleviate New Hanover County Schools budget shortfall, if the endowment so chooses — and does so in time. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A nod from the New Hanover County Community Endowment could help alleviate New Hanover County Schools budget shortfall, if the endowment so chooses — and does so in time. 

READ MORE: New nonprofit petitions AG Josh Stein to ensure NHC Endowment transparency, performance

At the school board’s budget work session last week, NHCS administration informed the board of a draft endowment application it was working on. The proposal is to fund 26 literacy coaches — one for each elementary school and one to share among the three pre-K facilities run by the district. 

The grant would cover three years of salaries and benefits at a price of $7.9 million. 

“We are writing a grant for literacy facilitators because of the strong success we’ve had in literacy,” Superintendent Charles Foust said at the meeting. 

The coaches would be tasked with supporting teachers with modeling and co-teaching lessons, data analysis, curriculum implementation, and professional development to improve student outcomes, according to NHCS.

In its 2022-2027 strategic plan, the board of education adopted a literacy plan with the goal of increasing the percentage of third graders reading at or above grade level to 90%. Another goal is to increase the number of pre-K students meeting or exceeding age expectations in objectives aligned with the North Carolina Early Learning Inventory to 75%.

PCD requested NHCS provide data showing the progress of their literacy plan so far; spokesperson Salvatore Cardella said the district’s overall proficiency has improved year over year, as well as between the beginning and middle of the year. 

Foust described literacy as a “gatekeeper”; he also emphasized the economic base is boosted and student misbehavior declines when kids read on grade level, thus affecting other aspects of the K-12 experience. 

The application did not take up a large chunk of the conversation at the budget meeting — though Foust did say he met with endowment staff the week prior. Port City Daily was able to obtain more information from emails sent by the superintendent and county manager Chris Coudriet. 

This included an addition to the original proposal, seemingly based on board feedback at the budget session. The application now includes an ask for $865,000 to continue funding the district’s pre-K facilities at current volume, bringing the total requested amount to $8.76 million.

As part of its $20 million budget shortfall, the district is faced with cutting two pre-K classrooms — affecting 60 students and four employees — because it does not have enough funds to keep up with raises and benefit increases. 

The shortfall also makes the literacy application and the timing of when it’s awarded — if the endowment chooses to — crucial. NHCS staff presented the board with a balanced budget last week, which relies on gradual attrition and reallocation of some central office positions to ones in schools, but 26 literacy coaches will reduce the amount of positions the district has to cut.

The endowment stipulates its funds cannot be used to supplant any current line item, so these funds won’t pay for any current positions in the system. But though they are technically new, current employees can move into them and, thus, the 26 reduces the overall positions the district can no longer afford.

The school budget needs to be turned into county commissioners next month — long before the endowment applications allegedly open. 

Bill Cameron, chair of the endowment, told commissioners last month it was looking to roll out more grants this year; its last cycle in December awarded $53 million to 33 nonprofits. Though the endowment announced almost $7 million in February to go to the Northside Food Co-op. 

However, in an email sent on April 19, Foust said he was aware the endowment was not planning to open for applications until January 2025. The recipients were endowment board member Chris Boney and Lakesha McDay, executive vice president of programs and operations, whom Foust asked to review his proposal. McDay is also fulfilling the day-to-day duties of the endowment since former CEO William Buster suddenly exited in February and the endowment searches for his replacement.

“The 26 dedicated literacy coaches will work in our schools and preschool centers, directly impact the implementation of the science of reading (state literacy model) and allow us to continue the work already in progress in the district by capitalizing on our embedded instructional framework,” Foust wrote. 

An email from the county manager indicates a push for the endowment to consider the grant even though its portal is currently closed, as well as for commissioners (which contribute to about a third of the NHCS budget) to back it up.

“Unless there is reason to pause, I intend to call the endowment chair and vice chair to let them know a grant request from the school system is forthcoming and based on what each of you have expressed to me individually, the board of commissioners would ask the endowment to look favorably on the ask,” Coudriet wrote in an email to commissioners this week. 

PCD asked the endowment when it was planning to start taking applications for its next cycle of grants. It did not receive a response by press. 

In an April 17 email to commissioners, informing them of the remarks made at the school board meeting, the county manager wrote the closed application portal struck him as “a technical submission issue v. a strategic issue.” 

“I’d like to explore that more with Dr. Foust, the endowment board, and his staff,” Coudriet wrote. 

Then, in an email sent this week, Coudriet told commissioners the superintendent will submit as soon as Friday a grant request to the endowment for a three-year literacy initiative.

Speaking for Foust, Coudriet said the superintendent agrees a portal being opened or closed “should not be a barrier to apply when the endowment has publicly stated it is willing to consider grants when the grants are ripe to help address a community problem.” 

PCD reached out to the endowment asking about its intentions to review the initiative before January, as well as elected officials’ bearing on the board’s decision-making process. No response was received by press. 

An inquiry was also sent to NHCS about its plans for the literacy coaches should it have to wait for the January commencement.

“At this time, we prefer to refrain from commenting on hypothetical scenarios,” NHCS spokesperson Cardella said. “We look forward to completing the application process.”

“For the sake of literacy and the vision the board of education and you have articulated here, I hope the endowment determines a method for formally accepting this ask sooner rather than later,” Coudriet wrote in an email to commissioners and Foust. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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