NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After debating a proposal to find $2 million in the school budget to bring the lowest staff wages up to $15 per hour, the New Hanover County School Board opted for a less expensive plan to raise wages over a longer period of time.
At a budget workshop earlier this week, the New Hanover County Board of Education met with administrative staff to work out last-minute details of the 2019-2020 school budget ahead of a vote on May 7.
The current budget proposal current includes a provision to raise the minimum wage for non-certified staff to $13 per hour, at a cost of around $500,000, according to MaryHazel Small, the district’s chief financial officer. A related proposal would raise that minimum to $14 in 2020-2021 and $15 in 2021-2020.
Board member Judy Justice, who was newly elected to the board during the last election, proposed bringing that minimum up to $15 per hour – the rate identified as a “living wage” and recently adopted as the minimum employee wage by both the State of North Carolina and New Hanover County. Currently, 59 percent of the district’s employees make below that level.
The cost of Justice’s proposal is around $2 million annually, according to Small, who noted that this does not “fix the scale accordingly,” meaning that while the lowest wages would be brought up to $15 hourly, other wages would not see comparable increases. In other words, an employee currently making $11 per hour would see a $4-per-hour raise, while an employee making $16 per hour would not see a raise.
During Tuesday’s budget workshop, Justice suggested that the $2 million could “easily be located in the budget” by addressing “the out of proportion spending on leadership, financial and human resources, and policy and public relations” compared to both other departments and other districts of comparable size.
“For example, the closest district of comparable size is Onslow County, which actually has a thousand more students. It only spends $1.6 million from local funds on school leadership and they get the rest from state funds. We’re spending $3.8 million, which is double that amount,” Justice said.
Justice also used as examples the district’s four full-time athletic trainers and $1.5 million spent on public relations positions and equipment (including a studio that produces New Hanover County Schools TV).
Justice also took issue with administrative position salaries. She pointed out that the highest-paid teacher, who Justice described as a 25-year veteran with a Master’s Degree, makes $62,000 annually, compared to assistant positions in the main office making $80,000.
Proposal gets pushback
The proposal ran into opposition from several fellow board members, including David Wortman, who defended the need for assistant principals and questioned the timing of Justice’s proposal – just two weeks from the final vote. Chairwoman Lisa Estep, who acknowledged that she wanted to see a $15 minimum wage, pointed out the lack of specifics in Justice’s proposal.
Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley said he took issue with a “blanket statement” about departments being too big.
“You’ve looked at numbers on a page, but have you actually sat down with the people who run those departments?” Markley asked.
Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday specifically addressed the issue of athletic trainers, noting that they are mandated by state law and stated that the district’s current staff are struggling to keep up with the athletic schedule as is.
Another issue, raised by Wortman and board member Nelson Beaulieu, was the logistical issue of firing employees or reducing their salaries without cause to free up funds for a $15 minimum wage. Markley noted that in an emergency — for example, a recession — the district could cut local supplements across all positions. However, the “arbitrary” demotion (the technical term for salary reduction) of some employees and not others isn’t allowed.
Employees whose contracts had expired might not be renewed, although Wortman pointed out that – traditionally – nonrenewal was tantamount to firing, and was reserved for employees who had failed to live up to their job requirements.
As the debate — at times tense — concluded, Markley said his staff would go back and review the budget in an attempt to find $2 million if that was the will of the board. While the board did not formally vote, all board members except Justice said they were satisfied with the current budget proposal.
The board will vote to approve a finalized version of the budget on Tuesday, May 7 during the regularly scheduled meeting, held at the Board of Education Center at 1805 S. 13th St. at 5:30 p.m.
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