NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools is being advised by its financing consultants to increase its minimum wage to $16 or $17 an hour for non-certified staff following a long-promised compensation study.
Tuesday night, HIL Consultants presented its findings to the school board. From speaking with its employees, it found the district was suffering severe compression issues — where new hires are earning as much as veterans — and was challenged even more so to keep up with the area’s high cost of living. This comes after the board reviewed a staff climate survey with mixed results and some concerning feedback. One nutrition worker told the consultants: “Morale is low because pay is low.”
There’s also been an outcry from non-certified staff demanding wage increases, as fast-food joints hang “now hiring” signs advertising starting pay of $19 and Target recently announced some workers will take home $24 an hour. Meanwhile, many teaching assistants are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and students are complaining of being dropped off at their homes after dark because of the bus driver shortage.
“The cost of living is astronomical now, the most it’s been in 40 years,” consultant Hank Hurd said. “So the time is crucial to look at the compensation study.”
The consultants are recommending NHCS work with county commissioners on a multi-year funding plan. It would include the adoption of a salary schedule that boosts all non-certified staff members to $16- or $17-an-hour minimums, with annual step increases. Currently, the minimum payment is $14 an hour, following a statewide increase to $13 in July. Pay would be set according to each employee’s experience and rise each year.
On July 1, the state budget allocates money to raise the minimum to $15 an hour. It will be a jump for individuals currently earning $14 an hour, but it won’t be an increase at all to people already making $15 an hour. The consultants say this type of compression degrades morale even further.
Board member Judy Justice pitched an idea of a staff task force, a temporary group with a specific goal of improving morale and helping with retention and recruiting. But chair Stephanie Kraybill and Stefanie Adams weren’t fans of the concept, wanting to leave the job up to the human resources department and school-level administrators. The board is expected to rediscuss the task force at a to-be-announced special meeting, during which it will likely adopt its four-year strategic plan. One of the goals of that plan is to create supportive environments for staff.
It is recommended that NHCS go up to at least $16 with 2% step increases, if there is a sustainable funding source, for non-certified staff. Doing so would cost $17 million. The consultants do not recommend dipping into Covid-19 relief funds to make it happen, which the North Carolina Association of Educators, community members and even elected officials have urged the district to do.
“I want us to play your recording to every single person because they need to understand that it’s not us that do not want to do this,” board member Hugh McManus said. “But we understand the limitations in doing it. And, for us to do it and do it right, we’ve got to do our budget, and we’ve got to have help with the county commissioners.”
The 2% annual increases would result in roughly a 67% difference in pay over 30 years. The consultants said that lines up with New Hanover County’s practice for yearly raises.
Alternatively, the district could raise the minimum wage to $17 with 1% annual increases, which may be more sustainable in the long run, the consultants suggested. It would cost $14 million.
Two other less-favorable options were presented: a minimum of $16 with a 1% step, a $10-million cost, or stick with a $15 minimum with a 1% step, a cost of $6.5 million.
The consultants cautioned against the hourly $15 wage, warning it likely won’t help retain staff or with recruiting efforts.
“Your cost of living is higher here, and the people that you’re competing with, around you, are going to be paying at least the $15 an hour,” consultant Ricky Lopes said. “In New Hanover, for you to be able to get that employee, it’s going to cost more than $15 an hour.”
The consultants stressed that to catch up to today’s living wage won’t be cheap. Largely, they blamed the state for being so behind. Over the last 13 years, classified employees in North Carolina have received less than 12% in state increases. That means a person employed by a school district in 2008 was making at least $13 an hour. It’s possible they’re now only making $14.63 an hour, or $30,231 annually. That’s less than a 1% increase for each year.
“Whether it’s New Hanover or any other county, to try to rectify that in one year is very expensive,” Lopes said.
Last summer in New Hanover County, the board of commissioners essentially raised taxes to approve raises for teachers in the budget, making them the highest-paid in the state. However, teaching assistants did not receive the same increases and have since come in droves to school board meetings, advocating for their own raises.
In early budget discussions, county commissioners have discussed prioritizing raising TA pay while also considering cutting back on taxes.
“The classified employees have kind of been left behind as far as salary is concerned, not just New Hanover. We’re talking about in general, across the state,” consultant Lopes said.
He cautioned that NHCS is at risk of losing staff to the private sector and neighboring governmental entities, including school districts, counties and cities that may pay more. The Wilmington area is especially at a disadvantage because of its high cost of living, 10% higher than the rest of North Carolina, according to Lopes. Renting in New Hanover is about 20% higher than the state average.
The two most sought-after positions, and possible priorities for initial raises, are bus drivers and those working trade skills, according to the consultants. Employees in the trades — electricians, carpenters, plumbers and mechanics — can easily find higher-paying gigs in the private industry. Those who have stuck around expressed it’s because they like the job, usually for its hours, the consultants reported.
Demand for bus drivers has also grown. The consultant said schools across the state are becoming “training grounds.”
“They’re paying to train them to get the license, and the next thing you know they’re gone,” Hurd said.
The consultants urged the school board to reach out to state legislators when advocating for their employees’ raises, as well as the county commissioners.
Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org