NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After hitting an impasse with three split votes Friday morning, a majority of the New Hanover County Board of Education agreed to ask for $13 million from commissioners over the next three years to raise the minimum wage to $17. It would still need to cut 230 positions to make that happen, and it is uncertain commissioners will comply with the request.
The cost would be around $3 million this budget year from the county. Chair Stephanie Kraybill said, based on conversations with county officials, she is unsure they will agree. She preferred a more modest request to raise pay to $16 an hour. Two motions for that option resulted in ties.
Board member Stefanie Adams, who historically votes alongside Kraybill and Nelson Beaulieu, left the room at some point early into the meeting following a back-and-forth with member Judy Justice, accusing her of not listening. Nelson Beaulieu asked if she could come back to vote, but Kraybill said that would be inappropriate because she missed the discussion.
“What do we do?” Kraybill said after the third tied vote. “So that means we give you nothing to send [to the commissioners], and they just go ‘OK,’ give us whatever they want.”
Board member Hugh McManus then flipped on a fourth vote to support the greater $13-million ask alongside Justice, Stephanie Walker and Pete Wildeboer. The request, if accepted, would empower the district to raise its lowest wages to $17 an hour with a 1% step increase, starting with bus drivers, custodians and teaching assistants in the first year. Those who aren’t due for raises until year two or three would receive bonuses from the fund balance.
Commissioners directed NHCS to put to use its federal Covid-19 relief funds and reduce its fund balance from $16 million to $10 million, according to central office staff.
“That’s scary because there’s no wiggle room for us,” Superintendent Charles Foust said. “With that budget, that means everything has to hit the nail on the head every year.”
To keep the cost of the plea to the county low, the school district would need to cut 230 positions within the three-year time span, either by letting staff members go or not filling vacancies as they open up, according to the central office leaders. It would also strike millions in planned expenditures using Covid-19 relief funds, including $1.8 million for HVAC projects and $2 million for summer learning programs.
It’s yet to be determined which positions would be terminated. The district is looking at assistant principles, elementary special teachers, instructional support and educators for academically gifted students. Its student enrollment projection — which is what funding is based on — is expected to decline by more than 1,000 next year.
“There’s no way for us to actually fund this budget with increases without cuts in position,” Foust said.
Kraybill and Beaulieu preferred to ask for $9 million over three years to raise the wages to $16 with a 1% step. That option — one of three presented by district staff — would only require New Hanover County Schools to shave off 134 positions, 96 fewer. The third proposal for a $16 minimum with a 2% step increase, eliminating 265 positions, was hardly considered.
Beaulieu was in favor of keeping as many employees as possible, but Justice was concerned about losing staff without a $17-an-hour wage and called $16 insulting.
“Picking the lowest amount is not going to help,” Justice said. “These people can go over to Domino’s and get $19, $20 an hour.”
Beaulieu rebutted: “I hope that you can provide some of our employees with that number for Domino’s because if you do your $17 plan, you’re agreeing to lay off 96 more.”
During the meeting, the board discussed ways it could free up funding, other than losing positions. Walker was in favor of scrapping unnecessary programs teachers do not use. Justice wanted to look closer at discretionary funds, which Foust got defensive about and said he has never used unethically.
“I believe we need to be careful with our words,” he cautioned.
Wildeboer advocated for ridding the equity, diversity and inclusion officer, preferring to focus on classrooms and double up duties in the central office. The newly created position was filled by deputy superintendent LaChawn Smith, but she retired shortly after she was transferred to the role. The $150,000 position is equivalent to three teaching assistants. Originally, Foust removed it from the proposed budget, but, after some protest from other members, he put it back in.
With a legal deadline of June for adopting a budget, the school board doesn’t have excessive time to comb through individual line items. It still had to make a decision to give the commissioners direction.
“I understand it’s $3 million more, and I’ve never seen $3 million my whole life, but the bottom line is, they also are saying we need to really support our TAs,” Wildeboer said. “So, worst case scenario, they send it back to us.”
Wildeboer added it “wasn’t the end of the world” if that happened.
“No, it’s not the end of the world, but it would be the end of the world for 96 people,” Beaulieu said.