NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Christine Miranda Ambriz ended one of her workdays this week frantically wiping feces off herself in a high school restroom.
A special education teaching assistant at Ashley High, Ambriz’s various duties include helping students use the toilet. She also assists in other ways through the day: helping tame bad behaviors, chasing down students, providing hand-over-hand instruction. By the time she gets home, she rarely gets a breather, picking up shifts at her second job to supplement her $13-an-hour income.
Often, she said, she wonders why she still does it.
“Every day I walk into the classroom and one at a time, all the students [say]: ‘Good morning, Ms. Ambriz. How you doing?’ … ‘I’m so glad to see you’ and it’s just smiles and ‘I hope you had a great sleep last night,’” Ambriz described.
She said one student can recite her and all her classmates’ birthdays and gives her a daily countdown to Christmas.
Teaching assistants like Ambriz are now advocating for higher pay so they can continue justifying their decision to stay in their jobs and turn away temptation as companies raise base salaries and restaurants hang “now hiring” signs on their doors with attractive numbers.
New Hanover County Schools is making some effort to keep up in the competitive hiring market, raising the minimum pay for non-certified staff from $13 to $14 per hour this year, with the help of the recently approved state budget.
North Carolina’s budget increases the base wage for non-certified school employees, such as teacher assistants and bus drivers, to $13 an hour. Since NHCS already pays at that level, it will use the boost in state funding to move to $14 an hour. In the second year of the biennium, statewide minimum pay will rise again to $15 an hour.
New Hanover County commissioners and school board members convened earlier this week in a joint meeting, where they acknowledged the low pay of teaching assistants but ultimately took no further action.
“It’s going to take an entire community, a statewide effort to really address this problem,” school board vice-chair Nelson Beaulieu said. “But I just think it’s important that at least for a few minutes here today, we did acknowledge it because we do hear you, and we do see you, and we do feel every one of those emails.”
The officials are receiving an outpouring of messages from teacher assistants. Some say their high school students are earning more per hour in their after-school gigs than the TAs do.
Nicki Smith, a TA at Forest Hills Elementary, indicated $15 isn’t enough to retain them in the competitive market. A more deserving pay, she said, would be at least $17 or $19 for those who work with exceptional children.
“I’ve just been around because of the students, but I know sooner or later, if things don’t change, I will have to make a decision to leave,” Smith said.
The average teaching assistant in New Hanover County currently earns $25,600 annually with benefits, working 40 hour weeks. That’s an average of $14.88 an hour over the course of 10 months. The area median income is approximately $56,000, meaning teaching assistants are earning about 50% of the AMI.
Ambriz said she considers herself lucky to only need to support herself. She already has to work seven days a week, part-time as a waitress, to make rent in Wilmington. Thanksgiving break was her first time off since the Fourth of July.
Candace Lennon Grice, a teacher assistant at Holly Shelter Middle, has worked in the public schools for 23 years, helping with the medical care of students. Today she still makes roughly the same amount of money as a new hire.
“You can own a car and have to live in it, or you buy a home and walk to work, so it’s not a livable wage,” Grice said.
Grice suggested their paychecks limit their ability to project a vision to their students. The students are deterred from pursuing education as a career, especially when they see teachers without even decent clothes on their backs, she said.
NHCS is now undertaking a salary study, with a goal of wrapping it by February and presenting the results to the school board during a public meeting. After the study is complete, there’s still work to do. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said they will need to prioritize needs, draft a timeline and find the money to fix the shortcomings.
“I just want everybody to remember when I was on the board, it was the bus drivers,” said commissioner Bill Rivenbark, a former member of the school board, during Tuesday’s meeting. “Now it’s the teacher’s assistant, and you got cafeteria work, the maintenance. It’s the whole crowd. It’s not something we can fix today, right here. You’re talking about some serious money, and we don’t have it.”
Led by the North Carolina Association of Educators, local school staff members are calling on the board to use its federal Covid-19 funds on personnel. Donning their signature red, teaching assistants, custodians, cafeteria workers, data managers and others are planning to return to the school board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7, and fight against the district’s notion that it can’t cover raises with its $88.5-million allocation of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
NHCS is set to collect and spend the dollars within the next several years. The district has already budgeted the funds, prioritizing initiatives to combat learning loss and acquiring enough equipment for a one-to-one student to device ratio. The school system is also hiring 10 social workers, nine counselors, seven nurses, three instructional coaches, one speech language pathologist and three occupational specialists.
County vice-chair Deb Hays repeatedly questioned why they could use the funds to fill new positions but couldn’t redirect dollars to raise the pay of teacher assistants. Foust explained he didn’t feel it was in best practice to put non-recurring money to that number of positions without a plan to sustain the raises once it ran out. There are 453 teacher assistants in NHCS.
“You have to think of ESSER as a grant,” the superintendent said. “After that year we have to be able to move them over to a position that we can support.”
Noting that the school system is predominantly funded by the state, school board chair Stefanie Adams urged the community to advocate to legislatures for investments in education. She applauded the commissioners for their stride in raising teacher pay.
Through the passage of the current county budget, adopted in July, local teacher supplements nearly doubled from an average of $4,183 to $9,000 a year. The move placed New Hanover County at the top in the state for teacher supplements but did nothing for non-certified staff.
Adams said she believes the latest salary increase has helped the district retain educators.
But teaching assistants say colleagues are dropping out and classrooms are strained. Often the teacher assistants are put in the position of lead teacher.
“They are gone,” Grice said.
Due to national shortages, few substitutes are available to cover vacancies and absences. Teacher assistants are often reshuffled to serve other classrooms or reassigned to work with students whose needs are heightened. Children are currently suffering from the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to teaching assistants, from going unsupervised while school was closed to losing family members to the virus. Grice said principals are breaking up fights daily and students can’t focus on academics.
“It breaks our heart every day to see the struggle now,” Grice said. “Each and every day, we hear on that school radio, ‘We need an administrator. We need an administrator.’ Because there are fights or children that are having struggles. Just, mentally, they’re not able to hold themselves together.”