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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Ask for what we need’: NHCS budget request surpasses $10 million

The board voted 4-3 — Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker and Pat Bradford dissenting — to ask county commissioners for $10.1 million to balance its budget. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A final budget request of the county commissioners had the New Hanover County school board split on Tuesday.  

READ MORE: Commissioners spar over Port City United, no capital funding for NHCS in latest budget talks

The board voted 4-3 — Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker and Pat Bradford dissenting — to ask county commissioners for $10.1 million to balance its budget. It is almost double the increased amount the county has been planning to supply.

“It’s our job as a school board to ask for what we need,” Walker said at the meeting. 

However, the board member was in favor of requesting commissioners fund the district’s entire shortfall, a $22.1 million deficit. Fellow Democrat McManus made the motion to keep all current staff, which would mean the district wouldn’t have to continue on its course to eliminate 279 positions.

Walker pointed to Wake County — which has over 100,000 more students than New Hanover —  asking for $58 million more from its county commissioners. Commissioners ended up agreeing to a $49 million increase. 

Board member Pat Bradford voted against both measures, noting where she drew the line was around $7 or $8 million. 

“I don’t have the stomach for $10.1 million,” Bradford said. 

The county staff prepared a proposal in April that would give the schools an additional $5.5 million, on top of the $94 million budget, to keep 76 of the remaining 110 positions on the chopping block: 15 teachers, six AIG teachers, eight enhancement teachers and 47 teacher assistants. The additional $4.6 million the school board settled to ask for Tuesday, if approved by county commissioners, would go toward retaining more special education and AIG teachers, top priorities for the board. 

The ask does not include more money to operate pre-K classrooms, as the county’s current allocation won’t go as far this year. Two classrooms set for elimination are part of a $8.76 million grant application to the New Hanover County Community Endowment; if awarded, almost $3 million would go to them.

The $4.6 million increase in funds does not include capital improvements. The county staff noted last month any additional funding reserved for the schools this year would not include capital needs, due to NHCS having $11 million in its budget to spend down before more is provided.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson explained on Tuesday the county looks at the school’s expenditures to measure progress on capital projects, though many of those funded improvements can’t be made until summer or winter break when students aren’t present. Therefore, it looks like the district has not spent a lot of the money they were given last year.

Anderson said he was working with the county on a different way to evaluate the capital fund.

Commissioners are scheduled to review the county manager’s budget recommendation Monday, May 20, if staff get a clear indication of the commissioners’ priorities. At a workshop this week, only the $5.5 million increase for the schools was discussed. 

Walker took issue with some of the commissioners’ suggestions, saying no money was given for exceptional children teachers despite it being a board priority. Though, the board has the leeway to allocate the funds as they see fit. 

On Tuesday, the school board clarified that the teacher assistants are all EC positions. 

As far as the $4.6 million more tacked on to NHCS’s request, the commissioners may not be willing to provide more money. Because the commissioners are not entertaining a tax increase, they are limited on options.

One is to pull $7.7 million from the county’s revenue stabilization fund, more than $300 million created by the sale of NHRMC to Novant in 2021. Commissioners would have to vote 5-0 or 4-1 to access the funds. 

Both commissioners Dane Scalise and LeAnn Pierce said they were against using the revenue stabilization fund. Pierce pointed out that taking money from the fund account would reduce the interest returns in the future.

The other option is to make cuts. Both Scalise and Pierce were in favor of reducing expenses in the budget. One department i. talks to cut is Port City United — the county’s anti-violence department. Scalise and Pierce have both been clear they would rather put that money toward the schools.

“This may be a philosophical difference that exists, but there is massive inflation in our community and beyond,” Scalise said. “Plenty of households have had to trim their budgets. It makes sense that at the county we do.” 

 Commissioner Jonathan Barfield supported pulling from the fund. 

“I will state on the record that I would be in favor of using the revenue stabilization fund to make things work,” Barfield said. “As one who voted for the sale of the hospital, what those funds would be used for is to stabilize your revenue, you know, unless we’re going to increase our tax rate. For me, I believe that our staff are professionals that understand the needs of the county government overnight when it comes to staffing levels.” 

A balanced budget must be presented to the commissioners before June 1 and voted on ahead of the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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