NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Next fiscal year’s county budget is coming into clearer focus, as it plans to provide up to $3 million more to New Hanover County Schools.
Extra funds are needed due to increased enrollment and to fulfill 60% of the district’s expected capital requests.
According to a Thursday presentation from NHC staff, the county has two funding options for New Hanover County Schools. It can issue the allotment based on the district’s current average daily membership of 27,150, for an increase of $2.06 million over last year’s allotment.
Last year, the county underfunded NHCS by $2.06 million due to a lower projected average daily membership, so the increase would be to make up for that difference.
The second option, and staff’s recommendation, would acquiesce to the district’s estimated 2023-2024 enrollment of 27,432, resulting in a $3.04 million increase over the previous year.
The county provides funding to public schools, which then must dole out to charter schools based on how many NHC students are in attendance. Charters receive the same per-pupil allotment provided by the county, state and federal government to traditional public schools. According to the budget presentation, the proposal is to maintain the county’s current per-pupil allotment of $3,434, the same number since commissioners increased it two years ago.
If commissioners decide to pay for the additional 282 students NHCS is budgeting for, it is unclear how many of those students will attend charter school. By the county’s calculations, it could be many of them.
A presentation by county strategy analyst John Townsend showed public elementary and middle school enrollment has declined to pre-2014 levels, and high school enrollment has barely increased. Inversely, charter school admissions increased 224% from 2014 to 2022, going from just more than 500 students to 2,000.
Contributing to the slight slump in public school enrollment is the state’s declining birth rate — down to 9.26 from 10.99 per 1,000 people in 2010. Townsend’s analysis also demonstrated a slow growth rate for younger populations, meaning there are fewer school-aged children joining the county population in comparison to older individuals moving in from other areas.
Those declines are also coupled with the increase in charter school popularity in recent years. From 2019 to 2021, the North Carolina Department of Education reported a charter school attendance growth rate of 19%. The increase was exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many parents opted for the flexibility of charter schools versus traditional learning.
Many leaving were Black and brown students searching for schools that better served their needs, according to The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It reported North Carolina charters gained 14% more Black students in the last two school years and Hispanic student enrollment increased by more than 23%.
During the meeting, commissioner Johnathon Barfield asked if local charter schools — eight in New Hanover County — had the capacity to support such growth. Staff had not run an analysis on that data.
Port City Daily reached out to all eight New Hanover charter schools — though it’s important to note that some students may attend a charter school in another county and NHCS money must follow them.
The Wilmington Island Montessori School reported a current enrollment of 211 students for a 219-student capacity. However, it has no plans to request a capacity increase, which must be approved by the state.
Classical Charter Schools of America operates one school in NHC and two in Brunswick County. The Wilmington Douglass Academy enrolls 560 students, and Roger Bacon Academy in Leland has 952 students; both facilities have a capacity of 1,080 students. The school expects its enrollment to increase next year, as well but did not indicate by how much.
PCD did receive a response from the six other charter schools by press.
The North Carolina General Assembly is also taking note of the “mass exodus” — as some analysts and reporters refer to it — of traditional public school students. Republican leaders are advancing the Charter School Omnibus, which would require school districts to share more of their funding with charter schools. The bill, which has until May 5 to pass the House of Representatives, would also allow county governments to provide capital funds directly to charter schools and make extending enrollment caps easier.
State Republicans, including Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) who is co-sponsoring the legislation, are attempting to expand the 2014 Opportunity Scholarship program to provide funds for any family, regardless of income, to attend private school.
If passed, these two pieces of legislation could produce even more enrollment shifts from public systems. All the while, the court-mandated Leandro remedial plan, to dramatically increase state school funding and priorities, still faces resistance from lawmakers.
The county’s presentation comes as NHCS prepares to cut nearly 130 positions from its budget due to an increase in pay and benefit costs. Also on the horizon is the expiration of Covid-19 ESSR funds the district used to pay support positions, such as counselors and social workers.
NHCS struggles with its capital outlay allotment, determining the $4.7 million the county provided last year will not be enough to cover needed 2023-2024 repairs and improvements. Along with routine costs and repairs, the district also will need to address Title IX noncompliance issues between the baseball and softball fields at Hoggard High School and Brogden Hall roof repairs at New Hanover High School.
Along with the $4.7 million, the school district is asking commissioners to provide almost $10 million to cover the needed projects. According to staff’s initial proposal, the county is willing to give them almost $6 million due to the district’s limited ability to complete $14 million-worth of projects next school year.
New commissioner Dane Scalise — who took over Deb Hays’ seat last week — suggested staff map out the next five to eight years in regard to student growth. Commissioner Rob Zapple was of the same mindset and stated if the county was going to need another school, they could start “laying away a little bit of dough” to make that happen.
According to staff data, there is no “bubble” of students coming up from middle and elementary schools, though Townsend noted it was tricky to calculate how the current numbers would affect high school enrollment. He said they typically see a 26% to 28% jump from middle to high schools due to non-traditional students joining the NHCS ranks.
As student enrollment declines, the county’s data shows the district is around 3.7% over capacity, and this overcrowding is mostly concentrated at high schools. These facilities include Hoggard (by 351 students) Ashley (147 students), Laney (201 students) and Wilmington Early College (34 students).
New Hanover High School remains almost 300 students under capacity, but Isaac Bear (30% under capacity) and SEA-Tech (16% under capacity) are not close, creating an uneven distribution of students across facilities.
“And what would solve that is if they redistrict,” commissioner chair Bill Rivenbark said during the Thursday meeting.
County manager Chris Coudriet agreed it is a possible solution.
“Building new facilities isn’t always the right course of action,” he said. “It seems like that’s the route to go when you have maximized attendance at 85% or 90%.”
He noted the county funded a student growth study to analyze development patterns, which is not yet complete, but said staff knows the per house student yield is below the national average.
The commissioners also discussed an agreement between board of education chair Pete Wildeboer, Superintendent Charles Foust to adjust funding after budgets were approved based on the actual number of students enrolled. So, if the county shorted the district again, it would be obligated to shore up the difference.
Coudriet noted, on the other hand, this would require the school district to deny some funding from the county if numbers were lower, since the commissioners cannot withhold allocations they budgeted.
The NHCS has not yet delivered its formal budget request to county commissioners. Staff will present its formal recommendation on May 15, with its public hearing scheduled for June 5.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated charter school enrollment has increased 1.6% since 2014; however that number refers to the combined growth rate of charter schools and public schools. This article has been updated; PCD regrets the error.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com