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New Hanover school board to ask county commissioners for cafeteria-worker, custodian, and teacher-assistant raises

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Board Member Hugh McManus at Tuesday's work session, "We need to ask for as much as we can, and we need to be positive because this is our chance."

At the Tuesday, April 19, New Hanover County School board meeting, members discussed the district’s recommended budget for the next fiscal year.

Funding basics

Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said of the district’s work session, “I think it went well. The outcome was for the board to provide further direction to the superintendent and his team on the budget that they presented to us for approval that will ultimately be presented to the county commissioners.”

Board attorney Colin Shive cleared up how the budgetary process works between the school board and the county commissioners: “The county looks at the budget that the board has voted on, and then based on that, decides how much they're going to give us in local current expense, and how much they're going to give us in capital outlay. And so they're not sitting there and vetoing line items that we are presenting in our budget.”

Last year, the district received a total of $438 million for its budget. About 41% came from the state, 26% from federal sources, and 24% was local — most of it coming from commissioners ($91.9 million, with about $6.5 million going to charter schools).

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Ashley Sutton, the interim budget officer for the district, said the school system is, according to her, tentatively receiving the same amount of funding as last year — $3,434 dollars per student. But at a previous county commissioner budget work session, the commissioners said they had planned on cutting about $916,000 from the budget, making the overall district budget $95.7 million.

Sutton also said the commissioners hope to add four new teaching fellow scholarships, totaling $28,000 — and six additional pre-K classrooms, with up to 18 students per class.

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The district is also asking for $7.8 million in capital outlay costs.

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New budget requests

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said he’s asking the county commissioners for $2.5 million in new requests to support the district’s strategic plan initiatives. The top goals in the plan are ensuring student safety and wellness and creating a supportive environment for teachers and staff.

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The board also voted 6 to 1, with member Judy Justice dissenting, to ask county commissioners for $16 an hour for classified staff with a 2% step increase (steps are typically based on years of service) — an increased cost of $17 million dollars over two years. This was one of the recommendations from the district’s salary compensation study, mainly focused on classified staff.

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Two main options from the compensation study consultants, Hurd, Isenhour, Lopes, LLC.

Member Judy Justice dissented because she said she wanted $17 an hour with a 1% step increase all paid within one year, totaling $14 million.

Justice asked Foust and his team whether they could do the calculation for $17 an hour with a 2% step increase. Foust responded that they would have to contract with Hurd, Isenhour, Lopes, LLC again to look at this change — and that Interim Budget Officer Ashley Sutton couldn’t do the calculations because she’s busy with other district tasks.

High priority, "blindsiding"

Board Member Hugh McManus said the stakes are high with this request: “It’s the biggest decision for our staff that we’re going to make. And I think this is a monumental moment for all of us, not just the board members and the county commissioners. The environment and teachers are one the top priorities for the right reasons.”

But Board Member Nelson Beaulieu said it might be too much for the county commissioners: “It is not a little amount of money. It increases our budget, and again, I’m all for making an ask, but I just want you to know you are blindsiding our funding partners.

Member Stefanie Adams agreed and said that the board shouldn’t bring an unsustainable budget to the commissioners, but that the district should find a balance between compromise and fighting for what’s important.

Vice-Chair Stephanie Walker reiterated that the budget priority is “our people.” Members Pete Wildeboer, Justice, and McManus agreed that they have to ask the commissioners for this additional funding for classified staff because the district is losing people to an increasingly competitive job market.

Also during the work session, district staff presented a three-year rollout of the increase. Dr. Chris Barnes is the assistant superintendent of human resources for the district. He said that “because the overall cost was high; we just wanted to make sure we provided options.”

Chair Stephanie Kraybill said the proposed classified increase will start with bus drivers, custodians, and teacher assistants in the first year. In the second year, positions like office support and technicians will receive a salary raise.

“We'll start with our lowest-paid employees, and get them the money as soon as possible so that they can stay in line with the cost of living in Wilmington,” said Kraybill.

According to the compensation study, the consultants said the district does not currently provide any supplement for classified staff, while districts like Buncombe (10.77% of base salary), Cumberland (2%), Winston-Salem/Forsyth (3%), and Orange (7%) all have them.

Furthermore, for cafeteria workers, the district is proposing to allocate $410,076 to the budget for their pay increases, as the nutrition staff has to raise most of their revenue through charging for services.

This was the only public work session dedicated to the budget. Justice said she wished they could have had more meetings, but Foust responded that the district was on a tight turnaround schedule because of the delayed state budget.

The next steps are that Foust will bring a formal budget request to the school board at their May 3rd meeting — then he will present it to county commissioners for approval.

Kraybill said in regards to working with the commissioners on the budget, "We are committed to working with [them] to build a budget that benefits our entire community. We value this partnership and appreciate the commissioners' support of New Hanover County Schools.”

Classified Staff Compensation Study

Barnes said the goal of the district's classified compensation study “was to look at making sure that our salaries were within the cost of living in this area, and then [it] also addressed any kind of compression that happened in our salary schedule due to the state not providing step increases for several years.”

Barnes said he’s met with several teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers and said he wanted to make it clear that salary is only one component of what the district offers them.

“We are required to put about 8% in for FICA (social security benefits); we have to put in about 24% into the retirement system, and about another $6,000 for hospitalization. So every employee's investment is different from just their salaries. So we've developed a way for them to get a look at their total compensation package,” said Barnes.

In the compensation study, the consultants said in their summary of ‘employee concerns,' “Turnover among support staff results in changing job expectations and yet salaries don’t change.”

Barnes responded, “Everyone is doing a different job than they were doing before, but it's periodically important to review job descriptions and look for shifts.”

Additionally, Barnes said he’s also had to communicate with classified staff that, “We don't necessarily have the ability or the right to make sweeping changes to our budget, that is encased inside a request to the county commissioners, and the county commissioners working with the school board to allot as much of the local funding as they can.”

He also said that Foust meets with different advocacy committees each month to solicit feedback on things like salary increases — these groups are comprised of students, classified staff, teachers, and principals.