Tuesday, April 16, 2024

More staff reductions, divisions to shave off $1M to balance NHCS budget

Monday’s line item breakdown of New Hanover County Schools’ budget revealed how the district plans to make ends meet with reduced funds next year. (PCD/file).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Monday’s line item breakdown of New Hanover County Schools’ budget revealed how the district plans to make ends meet with reduced funds next year.

Contending with a student enrollment drop, resulting in less state funding, and increased salary and benefit costs, the district will need to cut several positions — teachers, teacher assistants, and guidance counselors among them. It would result in almost $1 million from divisional expenses to cover the shortfall.

READ MORE: NHCS aims to cut millions from budget, important repairs lack funding

At the board of education’s budget session this week, Superintendent Charles Foust said the cuts were necessary for the district to live within its means. 

“We have to be fiscally responsible,” he said. “I don’t want us to think of us as hard-hearted and that we don’t care.” 

The district used $25 million it received from ESSR II, the second part of a three-part federal grant series addressing Covid-19 educational losses, to fund additional employees. However, the money is set to expire Sept. 30 and with it the positions, shoring up $4.5 million.

Impacted positions include some guidance counselors, a social emotional learning coach and specialist, an EC coach and curriculum specialist, social workers, and technology and media coordinators.

According to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Christopher Barnes, he has already met with most of the employees affected by the change. 

District spokesperson Russell Clark told Port City Daily earlier this month: “Every position that is being reduced is examined carefully, and every employee will have an opportunity to shift to a consummate position within the district.”

Barnes said the district will use ESSR III funds — $57 million in total — to provide compensation for employees that cannot be transferred to another position immediately to work until one becomes available.

The district is also using two other strategies to reduce staff: employee attrition, meaning it won’t refill some positions when people retire or leave, and amending school allotment formulas to increase staff-to-student ratios.

Across the district, teacher-to-student ratio will increase from 1:23 to 1:24 in first- through sixth-grade classrooms. Seventh and eighth grade classrooms will go from 1:23 to 1:26, ninth grade 1:25.5 to 1:26.5, and tenth and twelfth grades 1:28 to 1:29. The changes will reduce expenses by $2.1 million.

Teacher assistant ratios will also increase. In kindergarten, there are two assistants per three classes covering 18 students, which will now be 21 students. First-, second- and third-grade assistants (only one per three classes) will cover 21 students as opposed to 16, 17 and 17, respectively. Almost $1 million will be saved.

The district also plans to use one position across multiple schools to serve more students. Elementary schools with less than 400 students will share an art and music teacher, one teacher per two schools. Middle schools will receive one enhancement teacher per 191 students, and one guidance counselor will be allotted per elementary school, two per middle. 

The district plans to completely eliminate high-school graduation coaches and middle-school interventionists. Filling assistant principal positions at non-priority schools will not be required, and the district will replace its teacher ISS coordinator positions with teacher assistants, a net $317,000 swap. 

Overall, the district estimated $4.6 million less will be used to fund pay due to the changes in allotment formulas. 

As part of the budget cuts, Foust asked each NHCS division to cut expenses by 10%; that request generated a $968,000 revenue reduction, half coming from the operations division. The cuts include contracted services, supplies and materials, workshop expenses, advertising costs and travel reimbursements. 

Several positions will be eliminated, either due to attrition or the ability to subsume them within other roles: 

  • Financial & Business Services Division – Finance Accounts Payable Associate 
  • Financial & Business Services Division – Purchasing Warehouseman 
  • Instruction & Accountability Division – Instruction Teacher Family Life 
  • Technology & Digital Learning Division – Technology Area Network Coordinator 

The budget reductions are a culmination of increased expenses and decreased revenue that had remained in excess of the district’s per-pupil expenditure over the last few years. NHCS’s student enrollment declined after Hurricane Florence in 2018, and then again during the pandemic by 1,000 students. However, the state held steady at funding a little over 26,000 students because it expected the students to return post-pandemic. 

Beginning this school year, the state returned to only funding needs based on enrollment, causing the district to dip $4 million into its fund balance to manage its finances. 

Despite the overall downward trend in enrollment, the district had more students than New Hanover County commissioners provided for this school year. The county provided for 24,532 students rather than 27,500 students (these numbers include charter school enrollees). 

According to district data, 50% of salaries are covered by the local budget, provided by New Hanover County commissioners. 

As a result, the district anticipates the county to provide $3 million more this year.

The budget includes a 5% increase in employee retirement and insurance benefits. The additional cost adds up to $11 million, with the anticipation $8.5 million will be covered by the state. 

NHCS also had to contend with last year’s state-mandated salary increases of $15 minimum wage or 4% increase, whichever was higher, for non-certified staff, along with pay increases for teachers. The mandate went into effect this budget cycle. 

This year the district is anticipating a 4% hike across all positions “based on historical data and news releases of NC revenue surplus,” according to Clark.

The state has a projected $3.25 billion surplus.

While a 4% raise is built into the school district’s budget, Gov. Roy Cooper is proposing an 18% increase for educators and 8% hike for other school workers through mid-2025. He unveiled his budget plans on March 15, which also includes bonuses of either $1,000 or $1,500 for everyone. 

The plan appropriates a total of about $13.4 billion in the first year and $14.3 billion in the second year for the Department of Public Instruction, an increase in funding since last cycle. 

The North Carolina General Assembly has yet to pass a budget, so an exact raise amount is still up in the air. 

Foust remarked Monday the district would be “squirming” to fund Cooper’s 18% increase. While North Carolina would cover state employees, the district would be responsible for local and federal positions.

GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature, however, are not likely to agree to the proposition. Senate leader Phil Berger called Cooper’s budget “an irresponsible, unserious proposal from a lame-duck governor who wants future North Carolinians to pick up his tab.” 

Foust explained at the budget session, if the district goes “above and beyond” the state allotment — additional staff, higher raises — the local budget must be used to cover the difference. When the state requires higher pay, the district is responsible for filling the gap for locally funded positions and any cost above and beyond what the state provides. Without a comparable increase in funding, the same amount of money won’t cover the amount of positions it did before the raise. 

That leaves the district with two options: fund the difference with more local dollars or reduce positions.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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