Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Substitute shortage burning out teachers, NHCAE says billions that could help in limbo

Christina Holland, a math teacher at Ashley High, speaks on how the shortage of substitutes is impacting teachers. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A substitute shortage stemming from early Covid days has continued into the new school year, and New Hanover County Schools teachers say they are already exhausted from picking up the slack of the missing staff.

“It’s hurting morale, it’s burning us out, and we are at the breaking point,” Christina Holland, a math teacher at Ashley High, said Tuesday in a press conference hosted by the New Hanover County Association of Educators. NHCAE is calling on state and local leaders to find a solution to the scarcity, rather than continue relying on teachers to fill the voids.

RELATED: 30 drivers short, NHCS reconfigures bus operations, students still late to school

Districtwide, schools are navigating daily without enough substitutes to fill in for the number of absences. Other educators have no choice but to cover the classes and give up their planning periods. That’s time lost for corresponding with parents, grading and correcting papers, drawing up lesson plans and checking in with students who are under quarantine.

Holland estimates she is deprived of about 40% of her planning time weekly. After the press conference, she said she planned to take on those tasks later that night, after her own kids finished their homework, were fed and put to bed. Then she would wake up and do it again the next day.

NHCAE is demanding that teachers are compensated for their extra work subbing in for classes, with a $60 bonus per course covered. In North Carolina, millions in government dollars are available for Covid-19 response, but none of that money is currently backing solutions to substitute shortages. Plus, NHCAE notes, the state is estimating a $6.5 billion surplus in state tax revenue. Yet, the legislature is more than three months late with the budget.

“It’s maddening,” Holland said. “It’s like they don’t care about what’s happening in public education.”

On Tuesday, during the board of education meeting, NHCS’ finance department presented a new salary schedule that gives raises in multiple positions, including subs, but its approval is dependent upon the state budget passing, which is still in negotiations. If the budget isn’t agreed upon, NHCS will need to go back to the drawing board and pen a modified version of the pay scale, one that it can afford without statewide increases.

“It just wouldn’t be as good as this,” Mary Hazel Small, NHCS’ chief financial officer, told board members.

Currently, NHCS pays licensed substitute teachers $103 and unlicensed teachers $80 a day. The revised draft substitute salary schedule would raise that payout to $135 a day for a licensed sub, $110 for an out-of-state license holder (a new category) and $100 for an unlicensed sub.

The proposed wages are slightly more attractive than what NHCAE is pleading for to end the deficit. The advocacy group has asked leaders to raise licensed substitute pay to $125 per day and unlicensed subs to $100.

Marie Henry, a teacher assistant for exceptional students at Ashley High, said she was disheartened to be left out of a recent supplement raise for teachers. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Williams)

Nationally, school systems have struggled to hire substitute teachers since last year when the pandemic shuttered schools. When in-person classes resumed, substitutes were slow to return, as many are retirees, unlikely to risk contracting Covid-19 in a school full of kids. Still, absences were high, with educators regularly out for days or weeks to quarantine.

“It’s the first week of October and all I’m hearing: Teachers are burnt out,” said Marie Henry, a teacher assistant for exceptional students at Ashley High. “We’re only six weeks into a semester. We have a whole school year to go.”

In June, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners passed a budget with increased property taxes in part to nearly double supplements for teachers. They celebrated making the district’s educators the highest paid in the state. Henry said she was left out of that celebration.

Non-certified staff like Henry did not receive a supplemented increase.

NHCAE’s third ask is for a $17 minimum wage for education-support professionals — teaching assistants, custodians and nutrition staff. The proposed salary schedule raises minimum pay to $14 an hour for non-certified staff, though bus drivers will start at slightly more: $15 hourly with the opportunity to earn up to $17.41 after 15 years. Those rates are contingent upon the N.C. budget raising the statewide minimum pay to $13 an hour (before local supplements are applied), which is included in both the House and Senate versions.

NHCS is 30-plus bus drivers short at this time. The school system is pulling staff members with commercial driver’s licenses to operate routes when needed, and most drivers are running “doubles,” where they take multiple trips with different groups of students to the same school. The strategy has made students late to class or coming home numerous times this school year.

To entice new drivers, the school system is currently offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus in addition to its $14-an-hour minimum pay. Henry said it upset her to know she and other teaching assistants, some of whom work two to three other jobs, are left out of similar benefits.

“I make pennies [above a bus driver],” Henry said. “I am grateful that I own my home. I wouldn’t be able to pay rent anywhere.”

In a presentation to the board on transportation concerns, NHCS’ assistant superintendent for operations Eddie Anderson acknowledged custodians, nutrition and maintenance workers are already questioning why bus drivers are earning more when other areas face similar staffing issues.

“Personally, I believe they all need to make more money,” Anderson said.

“And we gave all the money to the teachers,” board member Hugh McManus pointed out.

Board member Judy Justice questioned whether the $350 million in hospital sale profits, which the commissioners partially designated to address school and community safety, could help solve the busing issues, which she considered a safety concern. She was shut down by other members who told her it was not their money to allocate. Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu recommended she call the commissioners herself.

In a presentation later that night to the school board, CFO Hazel said NHCS is planning to dole out emergency coronavirus relief funds in the form of $1,000 one-time bonuses for the support staff, which includes both bus drivers and teaching assistants.

NHCS has received a total of $88 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to spend over the next three years. The money is a combination of three bills: Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act; Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplement Appropriations Act; and American Rescue Plan Act.

The majority of the money is already budgeted for the first year to bankroll new positions and curriculums to address learning loss, social workers and nurses, and equipment to improve meal service efficiency, among other allocations. More than $29 million remains unbudgeted to use in the next two years.

Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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