Friday, August 12, 2022

Unhappy with NHCS, county commissioners threaten to roll back school funding in next budget

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman looks around at her fellow members for any signs of objection as she states that the board is collectively frustrated with New Hanover County Schools.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners floated the idea of cutting funding for the public school system following a budget presentation Monday. To no objection from her colleagues, chair Julia Olson-Boseman expressed frustration with the district leadership over the past year.

This time last year, county staff was planning the current budget with the goal of increasing teacher supplements. That priority led to the county’s raised per-pupil spending of $3,434, an increase of $527 over the past year’s rate.

Typically, the current amount allocated per student sets the baseline for the following fiscal year, but Olson-Boseman told county leadership during the meeting she did not want to commit to that number this time around.

“If I may address the elephant in the room … I don’t want to start at that number with the school board,” Olson-Boseman said. “I don’t want that to be the assumed number.”

County manager Chris Coudriet asked for clarification: “I don’t want to make assumptions. What I believe I might be hearing is that $3,434 is, in fact, not where you would like us to begin, but something less than that.”

“I would think that would be correct,” she said.

Looking around the dais and noting her fellow officials were nodding in agreement, the chairperson added that, collectively, the commissioners are “not extremely happy” with New Hanover County Schools. She indicated she wanted to ensure the board’s intentions are communicated and implemented.

“We need to really make sure they’re spending their money wisely,” commissioner Bill Rivenbark added.

Olson-Boseman also referenced teacher assistants in her comments. In recent months, TAs have been pleading for salary raises. The minimum pay in NHCS is increasing from $13 to $14 per hour, with the help of the recently approved state budget. Next year it will rise again to $15, but TAs say that’s not enough to keep them from finding new jobs in the competitive hiring market.

In a joint meeting with the school board last month, vice chair Deb Hays pressed Superintendent Charles Foust about using the district’s $88.5-million allocation of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) to give teaching assistants pay increases, but Foust didn’t waver on the already drafted budget. He said he didn’t feel it was best practice to use non-recurring money to raise salaries of 400-plus employees without a plan to sustain the wages once it ran out.

Currently, the spending framework includes:

  • $600,000 for new freezers and coolers
  • $1.6 million for 10 new social workers and an additional nine school counselors
  • $7.3 million for addressing learning loss, including filling 38 new positions
  • $1.1 million to replace four chillers to improve air quality at three schools
  • $6.6 million to buy devices as part of the one-to-one technology plan
  • $527,000 to position seven nurses, enough to reach one per school
  • $629,000 for mental health services, including five new staff members, school-based threat assessment training and contracted substance abuse prevention
  • $9 million to implement a summer learning program in compliance with House Bill 82
  • $550,000 for after school programming
  • $325,895 for the administration of the federal money

A remaining $53 million is unbudgeted and will likely be used to continue programs in fiscal years 2022 through 2024.

Again on Monday, Hays took issue with the district’s plan for the millions. The concerns arose out of a discussion about repairs to Brogden Hall, which is currently decommissioned, and a proposed plan to delay other construction projects to shore up money to fix the gym’s structural issues.

“I very much want Brogden Hall completed and fixed to the best of its capability and get it done ASAP,” Hays said. “But I am not going to vote to detour any other projects, especially when you’re sitting on that kind of money.”

NHCS was seeking to postpone $570,000 in repairs at Codington Elementary, a $545,000 roof replacement at New Hanover Hanover High and an $85,000 project for the band room HVAC at Laney High.

“We’re not canceling them — just hitting the pause button to be able to allocate the funds for the purpose of Brogden,” said Leanne Lawrence, NHCS director of facility, planning and construction. “And we will address these needs, but they are not as urgent as Brogden at this moment.”

Commissioner Rob Zapple questioned sentiments from the district that postponing the three other projects one year would make little impact. He pointed out that school buildings are used as shelters during storm events.

“Let’s get the roof fixed and be in front of it this time instead of having to wring our hands after we get hit,” Zapple said.

He also expressed concern about the potential of the project cost to rise again. Originally, the scope of the work was to replace the gym floor. The team later uncovered deeper structural issues, estimating a cost of around $1 million. After more investigation, the price tag is projected to be closer to $2.7 million.

At this point, the “guaranteed maximum price” is unknown, but Lawrence said bids are coming in under budget so far. Zapple predicted more underlying issues would be discovered once the floor was pulled up, causing the price to rise again.

Hays suggested the district figure out a way to use the Covid-19 relief money to get the project done. If the construction didn’t qualify for the federal dollars, she said they should pay for another financial obligation with ESSER funds and use the newly available money for the project.

“There’s ways to do this,” she said. 

She noted that the county has reconfigured its spending strategy for its $45.5-million American Rescue Plan allocation continuously. Most recently, it is re-budgeting to include make room for expenditures to improve school safety and address community violence following the shooting at New Hanover High.

Hays then motioned to continue the item to January and directed NHCS staff to come back once it figured out a plan to pay for Brogden Hall that doesn’t defer other projects. With a second from Zapple, the motion passed unanimously. Barfield suggested the school board meet to reprioritize. The board of education’s next session is Jan. 4.

Central office staff could come before commissioners again Jan. 10 during its next meeting.


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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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