NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools is having trouble filling its teacher assistant positions.
Reports over the last few months show teacher assistant vacancies have increased from seven to 20 positions from July to September. The October report is not any more optimistic, with 23 positions open or soon to be vacant.
The New Hanover County School Board discussed teacher assistant staffing at their meeting on Tuesday. According to Julie Varnam, many of the vacancies are “exceptional children” positions.
“Those are created based on intensive student need and aren’t necessarily able to be part of a state or federal allocation,” she said at the meeting.
As far as certified teachers, in July the district reported 56 staff vacancies, with 50 being student-facing positions. By Aug. 22, it decreased by half to 23 and then was down to six by the start of the school year. Yet, the number has risen this month to 30 teacher positions open — or will be vacant by the end of the year.
Board member Judy Justice correlated the staff shortage with a need for better pay.
“We just need to find money,” Justice said.
The lack of teacher assistants follows months of school board member debate on raising wages for the district’s classified workers. Those employees include teacher assistants, bus drivers, custodians and more, positions that are paid the lowest wages in the district.
Although the state mandated a $15 an hour minimum wage for all public school and community college employees for the 2022-2023 school year, Justice and fellow board member Stephanie Walker called for the district to go beyond that in this year’s budget.
A salary study conducted by HIL Consultants in March found the minimum wage should be at least $16 with a 2% increases for non-certified staff. Those employees, especially TAs, have voiced frustrations over pay, especially due to the county’s rising cost of living.
Certified teachers received increased teacher supplements — the highest in the county — in its 2021 budget cycle, also affecting non-certified staff morale.
The consultants encouraged the district to work with New Hanover County commissioners to develop a multi-year funding plan; in May, the school district asked the county to commit an extra $2 million to a three-year, $6 million plan to cover a $17 minimum wage. The county did not include the requested funds in its June budget.
Without the money, the district would have to cut 300 positions to accommodate the $17 minimum wage. The board also discussed providing raises to staff with Covid-19 funds, but those would be non-recurring.
The county’s rejection led to a convoluted debate among board members and NHCS staff on how much local money — $85 million total — should be put toward funding positions. Historically, state funding has been used to cover salaries, while local funds have been used for capital projects.
Superintendent Charles Foust advocated for lowering the amount of locally funded positions, while Justice and Walker fought against cutting any positions in favor of using ESSER monies — non-recurring Covid-19 funding — to cover the $17 wage without cutting positions.
Board member Nelson Beaulieu was outspoken against that plan, stating he would not support a raise that the district could not maintain.
The result was a budget which only included a $15 minimum wage with 1% increases. It required the district to cut 130 positions.
Vacancies among other non-certified (or classified) staff have remained steady or decreased since July.
Bus driver openings remained at 14 from July to September. The October report shows a decrease, with three bus aides and five bus drivers currently needed.
The district has struggled to provide enough drivers for its bus routes this school year, while also seeing an increase in ridership by 1,000 students from last year. It has resulted in late buses arriving at school and returning students home; some drivers had to take on “double-backs,” or two routes to the same school, slowing progress down more. Another barrier to hiring bus drivers is the requirement that they take the test to receive their CDL license before being installed on a route.
“This has not been the best start to our best transportation,” Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The district has taken steps to increase transportation staff by placing drivers that have passed the test and waiting on certification on buses as aides. In this system, these employees can begin to receive payments and learn from veteran drivers. Since the first week of school, the district has reduced the tardiness of its arrival time from 40 minutes to 10 minutes.
“On normal days, it’s less than five minutes,” Anderson said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org