UPDATE: Tuesday night the school board voted 5-2 to pass the budget and the mandated $15 minimum wage for non-certified positions.
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The school district and board are engaged in a battle of data sets as the finalization of the school budget looms and non-certified positions hang in the balance.
The issues on the table: How to provide raises for non-certified workers, especially teacher’s assistants, above $14 an hour, and how many positions local dollars should fund in general. The two go hand-in-hand — the number of positions funded by the county affects how much money is available for the wage increase.
The board has been discussing a $17 minimum wage for months, which would need to be accompanied by a reduction of over 300 employee positions.
The school board’s agenda for the June 21 meeting shows that may no longer be the goal.
The budget presentation suggests the state-mandated $15 minimum wage, with 1% increases for each year of experience. With this adjustment, 130 positions will still need to be cut.
On May 7, the New Hanover County school board voted 4-3 to ask the county commissioners for $13 million to raise the minimum wage to $17 an hour over the next three years. A salary study, conducted by HIL Consultants, suggested the lowest wage should be $16.
When the county passed its budget in June, it didn’t include the boost school board members asked for, leaving the board to work with the county’s $85-million public-school allocation (not including charter schools).
County officials have been arguing over how much of that $85-million should go toward salaries.
School boards use a combination of federal, state and local funds to cover employee wages. New Hanover County pays 651 positions from the county budget and the rest of the 2,900 positions with state and federal funding.
As the state has implemented budget cuts, school boards had to decide whether to reduce positions or rely more on local funding. With inflation increasing, employees are now looking for higher wages to compete with the rising costs of living.
Superintendent Charles Foust has advocated for reducing positions from the 651 locally funded pool. He said in a May 3 school board meeting that funding over 600 positions locally is “not normal.”
By comparison, Pitt County — student population 23,000 — is on par with New Hanover’s 24,000 student population. Pitt County employs 3,325 people, with 659, or 19% percent, locally funded (though some are paid for by grants as well). New Hanover County covers wages for 18% of all positions, according to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Christopher Barnes.
School board members Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker have been outspoken against reducing positions while still advocating for higher wages.
“We should not be having to choose between paying people a livable wage and cutting valuable classroom positions that we cannot afford to lose,” Walker wrote to Foust in an email obtained by Port City Daily.
According to Walker and Justice, the county should be responsible for filling the gaps of any state budget cuts.
“It is a shame that we are talking about cutting staff when we have abundant local resources to pay our staff a living wage and maintain our current staffing numbers,” Justice said.
State vs. local funding
Since the 1930s — amid the Great Depression when local governments could no longer afford to supplement educator pay — states have been responsible for subsidizing the majority of salaries, Barnes explained.
“The state and the federal folks are supposed to be funding 100% of our staff,” Barnes said.
According to the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s 2020 study, counties funded 16.3% of principal and assistant principal positions, 6.1% of teachers, 10.9% of teacher assistants and 21.2% of professional instructional support personnel.
“The purpose of local funding is supposed to be geared toward the maintenance and creation of buildings and operational expenses,” he added. “It’s now morphed into funding positions as well.”
The state paid 2% of capital expenses in 2020.
Increasing reliance on local funds in North Carolina can be attributed to budget cuts over the last decade. In 2012, many teacher’s assistants programs were slashed at the state level. New Hanover County’s teacher’s assistants have advocated for raises after they and other classified workers were left out of teacher supplement boosts in 2021.
In comparison to other counties, Wayne County, which has 17,000 students, locally funds 59 positions, while Durham County (32,000 students) funds 320 and Johnston County (36,000), 115.
“We don’t want to cut any positions,” Barnes said. “We’re trying to find a way to adequately compensate all of our employees and address any sort of inequities in staffing that we can find. There isn’t really going to be one size fits all.”
According to the school board administration, it is optimizing the budget as much as possible in every department. Board members said cuts could be made in services or programs, for example, but that would not shore up enough money to cover current positions and a $17 wage.
Justice and Walker claim the solution would be for the county to provide more funds, but efforts to get more money have failed so far.
“County commissioners don’t want to give us any more money than they have to because they want that money for themselves,” Justice said.
The Public School Forum’s 2020 study also noted New Hanover County ranked ninth in the state in its ability to fund public schools. Based on current spending of county appropriations, the county ranks 85th.
Wayne ranks 80th in ability to pay, but 60th in spending. Durham ranks 15th in ability to pay, but 58th in spending. Johnston County ranks 78th in ability to pay and fifth in spending.
“We have an ability to pay a lot better than we are,” Justice said.
Walker and Justice said the county could give the schools a chunk of the $350 million from the sale of New Hanover County Regional Medical Center in 2020, but that money is reserved currently for either mental health or debt relief and tax and fee stabilization.
“Fabricated stories by Board Members about access to Community Endowment funds, or stating that money is readily available regardless of circumstance is false and dangerous; it concerns me that individuals on this Board, who have control over the financial future of the district, have implied both in recent budget talks,” board member Stefanie Adams wrote to Port City Daily.
Justice also suggested the school board use its fund balance and around $50 million in ESSER funds to keep positions and fund raises, but that money is non-recurring and would only address the problem temporarily.
“After that, it’s going to be up to the county commissioners to do their job,” Justice said.
On June 8 Walker emailed commissioners and Foust suggesting they fight for more school investments, based on data they collected: “Funny thing about statistics is that there are a lot of ways of looking at this,” she wrote. “This tiny bit of information does not give the full picture.”
“I’m certain the Commissioners would be happy to work with Dr. Foust and pass a budget for you if you are not capable,” commissioner chair Julia Olsen-Boseman responded.
In the email thread, Justice alleges Foust was spreading false information that influences the board’s budget discussion and county commissioners’ decisions on budget allocations.
Justice included in her email a clip of Foust from the May 3 school board meeting stating the county was funding too many local positions.
“We have 667 positions in our local budget. That’s not normal,” he stated, explaining more positions have been added over time. “Typically — and that’s what I think about 35% — typically, you’ll have about 15% out of your local. So we’re so dependent on our local that we can’t move.”
It is unclear what Foust was referring to with those numbers. Justice and Adams interpreted his statement to mean other districts only pay for 15% of their staffing with local funds but New Hanover County is paying for 35% of staff.
Justice said she has requested Foust cite his sources but has not received a response.
“He won’t talk to me,” she said. “I call him and he won’t return my calls. I email and he won’t answer emails. This has been going on for a year or two.”
The issue seems to come down to what numbers are attributed to 15% and what numbers are attributed to 35%. According to New Hanover County data, salaries make up 35% of the county’s budget contribution, equaling $29 million paid from the $85 million provided by the county.
School officials also did not clear up Foust’s statement: “you’ll have about 15% out of your local.”
“We’re doing some research on that now to verify by calling districts and asking how many local positions they have funded,” Barnes said.
Looking at all of New Hanover County Schools positions combined from federal, state and county funding sources, locally funded positions make up 18% of all jobs.
“Responsible budgeting decisions must be made, and the superintendent is trying to do the best he can to work within budget constraints laid out by the state and the county,” Adams defended of Foust. “Anticipated enrollment is down while retirement, health care, and operating costs are going up; inflation is impacting the school system the same way it is impacting the entire country.”
Some board members will enter Tuesday’s budget discussion without being on the same page. Chair Stephanie Kraybill and Hugh McManus didn’t surmise what Foust meant when Port City Daily reached out for comment.
“Out of respect for my fellow board members and for our board protocol of discussing and debating issues together from the dais, I am respectfully declining to answer your questions at this time,” Kraybill wrote.
One person could clear up the meaning of the statistics being used, but requests for comment from Foust went unfulfilled as well.
The budget will be presented at Tuesday night’s board meeting where perhaps the superintendent will clarify the matter.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org