Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A funding tug-of-war: Staff say they can’t afford to live. NHCS says students are falling behind

NHCS has collected nearly $99 million in Covid-19 relief funding. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools leaders are not budging on a plan to allocate a majority of Covid-19 relief funds to learning loss and summer programs. Despite escalating pressure from teaching assistants for higher compensation, the district leaders have maintained the money cannot go toward salary increases.

Superintendent Charles Foust has stated repeatedly he does not believe it is financially feasible to back recurring expenses with dollars that ultimately will run dry. He indicated students have fallen behind drastically throughout the course of the pandemic –– and that school board members and the public would see that next month when central office staff presents on testing scores and projections for the new year.

The last time the the district reported first-quarter data, in November 2020, it revealed nearly 30% of high schoolers and 35% of middle schoolers were failing one or more courses as a result of remote instruction. Students of color were falling behind at disproportionate levels, with approximately half of the district’s Hispanic and Black populations failing courses in middle and high schools.

“I get it,” Foust said at Tuesday’s board of education meeting, “and I know that everyone wants to be increased in pay, but we also have to understand that we have students who are failing.”

ALSO AT THE MEETING: New Hanover County school board takes step to possibly censure member

READ MORE: New Hanover County Schools reinstates mask mandate ahead of spring semester

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, NHCS has collected nearly $99 million in relief funding through various federal and state grants. Of that, it has spent $17 million and has a balance of $81 million, the majority of which is from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), according to the state Department of Public Instruction’s reporting. It has budgeted a significant amount of the money to address learning loss, stemming from school closures.

When pushed by school board member Judy Justice Tuesday night for details on pay raises, Foust accused the board of only ever talk about the adults in the system: “We have not sat here at one board meeting and put together or talked about what’s best for students.”

Justice responded it is always about the children. Advocates of TA raises have suggested that by losing employees, they are hurting students.

The district’s chief financial officer Mary Hazel Small told the board she did not believe the board could supplement salaries with the funding. However, she said they could grant bonuses and have done so. A one-time $1,000 bonus from ESSER was paid in December for non-certified employees and operational personnel, such as bus drivers, child nutrition workers and custodians.

However, Castle Hayne Elementary TA Becca Beitel, who spoke in public comment Tuesday, said it was “not enough,” and by the time taxes were taken out, she received $649.50.

“When we think, ‘Oh, you have X funding.’ It’s not that simple,” the superintendent said. “There are restrictions that go along with the budget and the money.”

Community members still consider the multi-millions as an opportunity for the school district to better compensate TAs. Staff members have shown up in red, representing the “#RedForEd” movement for increased education funding, pleading for additional pay or threatening to quit and find work elsewhere.

“Having to work two or three jobs when you’re titled a professional is absurd,” TA Beitel told the board.

Beitel shared a message from one of her colleagues, who she said had just worked her last day: “I have never felt so unappreciated and undervalued by the system. I’m spread too thin. The pay is too low, and I don’t feel I can do a good job.”

Through the state budget, TAs are receiving a $2-per-hour boost over the next two years, but many argue a $15 minimum wage is not enough to keep them around when other employers are hiring for better pay. With the passage of the most recent New Hanover County budget, commissioners doubled the supplements teachers receive locally, making them among the highest-paid educators in the state, but the leaders did not address TAs or other classified staff.

Current projections indicate the cost to bring the district staff to a $17 minimum wage would cost approximately $4 million extra each year; however, that would mean some newcomers would earn as much as their supervisors. The district’s ideal salary schedule adjustment, starting at $17 an hour, is estimated at $10 million a year.

Board member Nelson Beaulieu agreed the “very serious gap in learning loss” should be the primary focus of the Covid-19 relief funds.

“This funding is for an emergency that is affecting second graders who can’t write us yet and first graders who can’t read what those second graders can’t write,” he said.

For fiscal year 2022, the greatest allocation in Covid-19 relief fund is $9 million toward summer programs, which is required by the state legislature this year, to bring students up to speed. The second-highest ticket item is $7.3 million to address learning loss year-round, including 38 new positions.

Around $6.6 million will go toward buying devices to work toward a one-to-one student ratio, a goal of the district’s that proved necessary at the start of the pandemic when schools moved to online learning and there wasn’t enough technology to go around.

In total, the district has committed to hire for 78 new positions through ESSER funds. The goal is to retain the employees through attrition after three years, when the relief money expires.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a memo Dec. 16 about strategies for hiring and retaining educators, which included greater compensation by use of Covid-19 relief funds. Cardona acknowledged in the letter that districts were concerned about investing short-term funds in ongoing paychecks. Still, he encouraged the use of ESSER funds to address labor shortages through signing bonuses, supporting licensure and other creative solutions.

“I personally think it is an emergency. I really think that we’ve been hearing it time and time again,” board member Stephanie Walker said, referencing Cardona’s letter. “We have to have a competitive market when it comes to these jobs and appreciate the people that are there doing them. And if they can go somewhere else and get a job for less stress, they may do that. I don’t want us to be in a position where we have to scramble to cover classes, and we already have a shortage.”

Most school districts in North Carolina are sticking to bonuses. Wake County used some of the relief money to raise substitute teacher pay, which NHCS has also done, and then employed $80.7 million to distribute $3,750 staff bonuses in multiple installments. One Wake County board member urged the district to play “hardball” by using the one-time funds for salary increases, then “daring the state and county commissioners” not to replenish them, the News & Observer reported.

Neighboring Brunswick County Schools is giving out $1,500 bonuses to employees with $2.4 million in relief dollars.

NHCS is in the midst of a compensation study that should be complete by February and presented to the board in March. It will compare markets and recommend updated salary schedule structures. The officials would then prioritize who gets how much in raises and when, plus have to find the funding source to allocate the money.

“You can’t fix it all in one year. It takes years. Because we’re not talking about hundreds of thousands. We’re talking millions –– with an ‘s,’” Foust said.

Foust said staff, including TAs, will have opportunities to earn extra income over the summer as part of the ESSER-funded learning program. Last summer, NHCS paid 136 TAs a cumulative of $158,445 in bonuses for their work in the program. For each elementary student a teacher helped get on grade level, the educator was paid an extra $300, in addition to a $2,500 signing bonus.

Foust announced NHCS is also looking to secure funding to create a pathway for TAs to become teachers. Ten participants would receive scholarships to attend UNCW’s four-year education program.

NHCS is also planning to use ESSER funds to pay for two capital projects it recently tried to postpone to instead use the money for more time-sensitive repairs in New Hanover High’s Brogden Hall. County commissioners previously declined to approve the necessary budget adjustments and asked the district to find a way to take advantage of the ESSER funds so they wouldn’t have to defer other construction needs.

Now, the $85,000 HVAC project for Laney High’s band room and $545,000 for a roof replacement project at New Hanover High will be included in the ESSER budget. Improvements slated for Codington Elementary, also almost deferred, will be covered by reallocating money budgeted for classroom projector devices that were less than projected.

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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