Wednesday, June 12, 2024

New Hanover School Board won’t discuss budget questions about top administration salaries

All salaries in the New Hanover County school system are approved by the Board of Education, but board members have declined to answer questions about why the county pays considerably more from local funds for administrative staff than neighboring counties.

The New Hanover County Board of Education is refusing to answer questions about administrative pay rates, citing the direction of board attorney Wayne Bullard. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The New Hanover County Board of Education is refusing to answer questions about administrative pay rates, citing the direction of board attorney Wayne Bullard. From top left: Chairman Edward Higgins, Vice Chairwoman Jeannette Nichols, Janice Cavenaugh, Lisa Estep. From bottom left: Donald Hayes, Bruce Shell, David Wortman. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education – with one exception – is declining to answer questions about the administrative pay rates it has approved, citing instructions from the board’s attorney to instead let Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley respond.

Only board member and candidate for re-election Bruce Shell responded; the other six members remained silent or deferred to board attorney Wayne Bullard.

The initial question, emailed to the board on Wednesday, arose out of this year’s campaign for four open seats on the Board of Education. The question was about how – and how much – New Hanover County pays its central administration.

Administrators, including superintendents, deputy and assistant superintendents, chief communication and financial officers, and board attorneys, are paid from a combination of state and local funding. The state sets a salary schedule based on a number of factors, but there are no state regulations on how much county school boards can supplement these salaries with local funds.

The state and local funding levels for top administrative positions in New Hanover County schools. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy NHCS)
The state and local funding levels for top administrative positions in New Hanover County schools. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy NHCS)

For example, Markley is paid at or near the state’s maximum; taking into account the large student body of New Hanover County, as well as his advanced degrees and certifications, the state portion of Markley’s salary is $142,308 plus state benefits.

The county portion is $67,692, plus $14,000 in county-funded benefits.

That’s significantly more than Brunswick County, where Superintendent Leslie Tubb receives the same approximate state portion, but only $21,760 from local funds, or Pender County, which pays Dr. Steven Hill an extra $41,000 from local funds. It is, however, roughly the same as Onslow County, which paid Superintendent Rick Stout a similar total salary to Markley’s prior to Stout’s retirement.

Part of the question to the board was about why some superintendents and other administrators were paid more from county funds than others. Was it to compete with other districts? To account for cost of living? Some other reason?

The Board refused to answer.

Instead, Bullard apparently instructed Markley to answer questions on behalf of the board, including those implicitly about his own salary.

“Our board attorney has suggested that there be a single reply from the superintendent. He will be contacting you,” Janice Cavenaugh, the only board member to reply to the initial question, wrote in an email.

Related: School Attorney: Don’t ask Board of Education questions about Ashley dean of students hiring

It’s not the first time Bullard has effectively issued a gag order on the board.

In November of 2017, Bullard instructed board members not to answer questions about the hiring of Ashley Dean of Students Ronald Wells Gulledge after concerns were raised about his role in a federal investigation into alleged Title IX violations in New Hanover County Schools.

Bullard said at the time that only Board Chairman Ed Higgins could respond, but Higgins refused to answer phone calls or emails.

Broader questions

The Board also declined to answer the broader scope of the question: why does New Hanover County pay significantly more from local funds for central administration than other neighboring districts?

County budget Students Central Administration – state fund Central Administration – local fund Superintendent – state Superintendent – local
Brunswick 13,600 $750,000 $1.3 million $142,308 $21,760
New Hanover 27,000 $1 million $3.8 million $142,308 $67,692
Onslow 29,500 $1 million $1.6 million $142,000* $67,712*
Pender 9,200 $583,994 Not listed $116,200 $41,000

*Based on maximum state-funded pay of $142,000; state and local levels not detailed in budget.

For example, Onslow County, which has more students than New Hanover County, receives the same state funding for its administrative salaries, a total of $1 million, the same amount New Hanover does.

But, while Onslow supplements that state funding with $1.6 million, New Hanover supplements with more than double that amount — $3.8 million.

So, why does New Hanover County spend more than twice what Onslow and Brunswick counties do, relative to state funding?

The board, which had final approval over this spending, wouldn’t answer.

The board was asked if it could be to mitigate a higher cost of living, or an attempt to secure higher quality employees, or the result of long-term employees who the county felt deserved compensation. The board was also asked if it could be the result of cronyism.

Again, no answer.

Chief Communication Officer Valita Quattlebaum, who was carbon-copied on emails to the board, did respond with a statement:

The salaries of administrators in the New Hanover County Schools are comparable with salaries in similarly sized school systems. Contracts for administrators are approved by the New Hanover County Board of Education in a public meeting. Salaries are approved by the Board individually or by reference to a salary schedule approved by the Board. All hiring is done in an open, transparent and ethical manner.

No comment has been received from Markley yet, perhaps as a result of a follow-up email sent to the board, Bullard, and Markley, stating that a response from Markley to a question asked of the board about the salaries of Markley and his core administrative staff would not be “an acceptable response in any way.”

Breaking rank, Board Member Bruce Shell answers questions

On Friday evening, Shell responded to the follow email-up again asking the board for a direct response. He was the only board member to do so.

Shell addressed the use of local and state funds, saying that the school district did its best to “get the most” out of state funds, using them to support the salaries of “teachers with longevity.”

“What impressed me about New Hanover County was how they were trying to maximize the use of local dollars, so that the local dollars could go further. The local dollars, as you know, are the more flexible dollars, in terms of how you can use it. The state is pretty rigid in what you can do with it,” Shell said.

This practice, Shell said, does leave less available funding for things like administration.

“Now, when you get into the central office, some of those positions are funded to the extent possible with state dollars … that is my belief that the school system uses [state funds] to the extent possible,” Shell said.

When asked about direct county-to-county comparisons, showing the significantly higher level of both total funds and local funds spent on Central Administration, Shell said he had recently asked a similar question.

“I asked a related, not exactly what you’re asking, but a similar question not very long ago, because I know one of the candidates had raised this issue,” Shell said.

Shell said he was told by school officials that some schools include fewer positions in their central offices, positions that are organized and funded elsewhere in the budget, while New Hanover County’s central office includes more positions as a sort of central hub for allocations.

Still, in a comparison of four counties, New Hanover County clearly spent the highest amount of local money, both overall and in comparison to state fundings.

County Total state funding Total local funding Percentage of state matched by local
Brunswick $76,941,576 $42,097,098

 

55%
New Hanover $151,943,006 $84,903,814 56%
Onslow $163,580,717 $59,311,468 36%
Pender $56,784,809 $18,180,788 32%

 

There is nothing necessarily wrong with allocating local funds to the school budget; in fact, historically some candidates for the board have called for increased local spending. And it’s possible that New Hanover County’s disproportionately large Central Administration cost is simply a matter of budget organization, as Shell was informed when he initially inquired about it.

However, New Hanover County’s high rate of local contribution relative to the proportional spending in other districts still poses the question of over-spending, an issue Shell acknowledged as a possibility.

“Now, since the question has come up, I am one of seven that will be looking into that to make sure that that’s not the case,” Shell said.

Shell said a simple answer was difficult without all the data in front of him, but acknowledged the question was an important one.

“I think your comparison is valid, but I’d have to look at it and ask the tough questions to get you a straight answer,” Shell said. “All I know to say is that you have my word I’ll check into it.”


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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