NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, including two newly seated members, unanimously approved $750 bonuses for all 3,400 school district employees Monday night to reward the staff for their extra work during the pandemic.
The announcement of the bonus came as a surprise to the public, as it was not listed in the meeting’s agenda. It was discussed and approved under an agenda item considering support for ongoing school operations and full-time reopening for pre-K through 5th-grade students. Chair Julia Olson-Boseman and new board member Bill Rivenbark, who was sworn in earlier in the meeting, spoke from prepared remarks in sharing news of the bonus.
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Though the bonus was approved during a discussion item pledging the county’s support to fully reopen pre-K-5 schools, the payout is not conditional on whether the school system ultimately adopts the recommended policy change, according to county manager Chris Coudriet.
“I know that there’s been some connection — or perception of a connection — between that and a proposed action of the school board,” Commissioner Rob Zapple said Tuesday. “There is no direct connection between the bonus and that action. That’s something that’s clearly in the purview of the school board and that’s a very difficult decision they’re going to have to make themselves.”
A boost for NHCS staff
Teachers and school staff have been challenged to adapt to the constantly changing environment amid Covid-19. In March, employees were given a weekend’s notice schools would shut down for an unknown period of time. Educators were tasked with converting a semester’s worth of in-person lesson plans to virtual, teaching themselves how to operate unfamiliar software along the way. This semester teachers have juggled in-person and remote learning, often struggling to engage children or working late hours to make contact with parents who are busy during the day.
The bonus will be paid before Christmas.
New Hanover County funds the school system, including teacher subsidies to supplement state salaries. This fiscal year the school system’s appropriation makes up a third of the county’s $350 million general fund budget.
The one-time bonus will cost the county a total of $2.756 million, according to a county spokesperson. Financing the total appropriation will come from the county’s general fund ($805,000), intergovernmental revenue funding ($1.35 million), miscellaneous revenue ($300,000), and relocated budgeted expenses, according to the spokesperson and county finance director Lisa Wurtzbacher.
“We found some funding but had to dip into our savings to pay for it,” Wurtzbacher said.
The (unconditional) ask
Board of Education Chairperson Stefanie Adams, board member Nelson Beaulieu, and Superintendent Charles Foust attended the meeting to thank the commissioners for the additional funding. Neither Foust nor Adams explicitly spoke in favor of switching to Plan A.
“We have to make sure our teachers and school staff have the resources they need, and that they too feel supported and appreciated,” Olson-Boseman said in a prepared statement during the meeting. “As a parent of a child in the school system, this is incredibly personal for me. I see first hand what these kids are going through and now our teachers, our principals, our bus drivers, our food service providers . . . and all of these people who are just so important to the schools are stepping up to do all they can during these hard and constantly changing times.”
In the same statement, Olson-Boseman asked the board of education to return pre-K and elementary school students to schools five days a week, beginning in January, and continue to provide an all-remote option for families. The commissioners are requesting the district implement Plan A with all safety precautions in place next semester.
On Tuesday evening, the school board will hear a Covid-19 update from school administrators, the ABC Science Collaborative and New Hanover County Public Health officials. Following, Foust will present a “transition plan,” according to the agenda.
“Students need to be in school and the data supports that,” Olson-Boseman said. “National reports have shown that we are doing more damage than good by keeping kids out of school.”
Move to Plan A?
All grade levels within the NHCS system are currently under Plan B, operating on an AA/BB schedule. Students are split into two groups — A or B — and attend classes in person twice a week. The rest of the days, students learn from home. At this time, Gov. Roy Cooper has only given local districts the option to reopen elementary schools at full capacity.
Olson-Boseman noted the CDC is reporting the virus has lower levels of transmission inside schools, “and that is what we are seeing locally, as well.” Last week, 61 staff and students in New Hanover County Schools tested positive for Covid-19, a significant jump from the past seven weeks when the weekly average number of new cases was 16. Twenty-nine of the cases were in elementary schools.
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According to the school district’s reporting of positive cases, 122 people were assigned to quarantine for exposure at one of the facilities. New Hanover County has reported a total of 183 positive cases, including 83 in elementary schools, since Aug. 17.
Rivenbark, who left his post on the board of education last month to take his seat on the board of commissioners, made the motion to approve the bonuses. As a school board member, Rivenbark voted in favor of adopting a blended learning environment under Plan B in September, after the school system began the year with nine weeks of all-remote learning. When the system switched to Plan B, board member David Wortman was the lone dissenting vote, citing the need to bring students back full-time.
Rivenbark said in an interview he was optimistic NHCS administrators and new board members would be amenable to adopting the county’s recommendation. “I hope so,” he said. He expressed concern for how remote learning was impacting working parents and students’ mental health. “I think the kids are safer in school than outside of school.”
Compared to recent years in which relationships weren’t as fluid, Rivenbark said he thinks both the school board and county commissioners will now be more in sync with one another, with the induction of new board members.
The recommendation was seconded by Zapple after he explained he had listened to both sides of the debate and believed young children were suffering without full-time, face-to-face learning.
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