Friday, August 19, 2022

Commissioners likely won’t entertain $18M ask from NHCS

New Hanover County commissioners and the board of education held their last joint meeting in November 2021. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County leaders have signaled they intend to reject an $18-million ask from the school district before the board of education has even formally asked for the money.

During a budget workshop Thursday, county staff told commissioners they are anticipating the formal proposal from the school district this week. Commissioner Bill Rivenbark said one board of education member already posed the question in a private conversation.

“I told the person that called me that they ain’t getting that,” said Rivenbark, who served on the school board from 2018 to 2020 before his election to the commissioner seat. “And they need to go back and sit down and figure out what they’re going to do.”

Some New Hanover County commissioners have expressed they want New Hanover County Schools to shuffle around Covid-19 relief funding from the state and federal government before expecting the county to re-budget itself. For months, county officials have vocalized concerns over the district’s fiscal responsibility.

In a November joint meeting, vice chair Deb Hays pressed the superintendent about using an $88-plus-million allocation of Covid-19 grants to boost teacher assistants’ pay, but Dr. Charles Foust said it was bad practice to put non-recurring funds toward ongoing salaries.

During last week’s budget session, Hays stuck to the mindset that the district could strategically move around line items to shore up money for the TAs. For example, she said they could fund repairs at Brogden Hall with Covid relief and then use the newly freed-up money in the budget to pay staff.

“Bottom line is: They have a lot of money sitting over there, and I want to know what they’re doing with it,” Hays said.

About $15 million of the anticipated $18-million request would go toward boosting salaries, county staff explained to the commissioners. It would appease bus drivers, TAs and other non-certified staff who have pleaded for raises this year as inflation costs rise, affordable housing options become slim and corporations increase the minimum wage during the “Great Resignation.”

READ MORE: NHCS advised to up lowest wages to $16

As commissioners point at the unspent Covid funds, school board member Judy Justice continues to advocate for dipping into the hospital sale revenue, currently in a reserve. Two board members — Stefanie Adams and Nelson Beaulieu — called it “embarrassing” she continues to talk about that as a possibility. According to a county spokesperson, the $300-million escrow fund is reserved for emergency and crisis response, debt relief, and tax and fee stabilization — not public education.

Tuesday night, county manager Chris Coudriet is slated to make an appearance at the school board meeting. Board chair Stephanie Kraybill invited him to clear up “misconceptions” over the hospital deal. Funding concerns weren’t the basis of his invite, but they could come up as school board members are set to discuss the budget later Tuesday evening.

If commissioners comply with the school district’s anticipated request, it could raise the amount of funding per student to $4,114. Last year, the county increased teacher pay and its per-pupil expenditure by $527 to $3,434. New Hanover County effectively passed a tax increase to do so, an unpopular decision amongst some voters.

Months into the new fiscal year, New Hanover County Chair Julia Olson-Boseman asked to roll back that funding in the next budget cycle, expressing frustration with the district leadership.

The anticipated $18-million ask includes a $4.7-million capital outlay request, county staff reported. It’s roughly a million dollars more than last year, with $3.5 million for repairs and renovations, $564,000 for tech, $314,000 for vehicles and $283,000 for furniture. The exact details were unknown.

“Once we have that, we’ll be able to do a much deeper dive,” ​​Lisa Wurtzbacher, assistant county manager, told commissioners during the budget workshop.

Commissioners are getting close to finalizing the budget. Staff will present its recommendation on May 12 during an agenda briefing. Despite other members floating the idea, Olson-Boseman said there was no point in holding another work session to discuss schools because it wouldn’t change the funding amount they already planned for.

“Unless the board’s going to meet them at something other than $3,434, I don’t know why you would convene to talk about that,” Coudriet said. “Because we’re not going to change what is our recommendation.”

Hays requested information on how much the district receives from the red-light camera fines, the status of its fund balance and an exact breakdown of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The latest budget plan for ESSER focused $7 million on combating learning loss, $9 million on a state-required summer educational programming and $6 million to purchase technology for every student, among other expenditures. More than $50 million was unbudgeted for fiscal year 2022-23 and 2023-24.

Hays called the plans “very, very vague.”

“I’d really like to see them take a look at some prioritization with that fund,” she said. “I think those funds could have been used this year to help at least give bonuses to the teachers’ assistants.”

Commissioner Rob Zapple was more open to the idea of hearing out the additional funding request during a subsequent meeting but said so far he’s given school board members a similar response as Rivenbark.

“There’s a lot of daylight between what they want, and then what it is that they’re going to actually bring forward, which will have a huge impact,” Zapple said.

In an at-times heated discussion on April 19, school board members debated what they would ask of the commissioners. Some school board members felt they should request as much as possible and be satisfied if they receive somewhat less. Board member Hugh McManus called it a “monumental moment” and their “chance.” Others, like Beaulieu, suggested they were “blindsiding” the commissioners and being unappreciative of their funding partners.

“If we try and make this confrontational and say we need all of the sky, the moon and the stars, and then they are made to say no — how does that impact our relationship?” Adams asked.

Superintendent Foust proposed two options for salary increases: a minimum $16 hourly wage with a 2% step — a $17-million cost — or a $17 minimum with a 1% step — a $14-million adjustment.

Justice advocated for even more: $17 with a 2% step, all done in one year. Beaulieu questioned whether Justice even had a conversation with one of the commissioners.

A vote passed 6-1, Justice opposed, to pursue a $16 minimum wage with a 2% step, adjusted over the next two years.

Vice chair Stephanie Walker predicted during the session the commissioners would comment on the ESSER funds, but she was the only member to bring it up throughout the three-hour meeting.

“[Our staff] should be our top priority here,” she said. “If there’s things we got to wait on or maybe move stuff around and supplement it — I’m just putting it out there. Because I just feel like they’re gonna be looking at this us going, ‘Well, you’re asking for this, but what else is in your budget that maybe you guys can look at?’”

In a statement, NHCS said the board will further refine the district’s budget at Tuesday’s meeting and present the final request to the commissioners in mid-May.

A timeline of the commissioners’ and school board’s relationship over the past year:

June 9, 2021: With effective tax increase, commissioners approve $458M budget including staff, commissioner, and teacher raises

Dec. 20, 2021: Unhappy with NHCS, county commissioners threaten to roll back school funding in next budget

Jan. 9, 2022: ​​A funding tug-of-war: Staff say they can’t afford to live. NHCS says students are falling behind

Jan. 27, 2022: Commissioner chair calls out school board member


Email the reporter at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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