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NHC Board of Commissioners: New members, $2.7 million 'Christmas' bonuses, push to reopen schools

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New Hanover County
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New Hanover County commissioners are pushing the county's elementary schools to reopen next month.

On Monday night, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners held its last meeting of the year. After swearing in new members, and a brief discussion of financing issues, Board Chair Julia Olson-Boseman ended the meeting with a two-part address to the county’s school system, offering $2.756 million in bonuses to school employees while pushing the district to consider reopening elementary schools for full-time in-person instruction.

The meeting started with the swearing in of newcomers Bill Rivenbark and Deb Hays, both Republicans, as well as incumbent Jonathan Barfield, Jr., a Democrat beginning his fourth term. Despite behind-the-scenes wrangling for the chair and vice-chair position, the votes were unanimous and uncontested. Rivenbark nominated Olson-Boseman for chair, seconded by Hays; Olson-Boseman then nominated Hays for vice-chair, seconded by Rivenbark. As in Olson-Boseman’s previous year as chair, the board positions did not hinge on seniority or party affiliation.

The new board approved $24.5 million in funding for The Healing Place, a 200-bed facility for drug and alcohol substance abuse. After financial reshuffling, delays in permitting with the City of Wilmington, and legal challenges, the facility now appears to be moving forward --- construction is set to begin in February 2021 and the facility is anticipated to be operational by May of 2022.

Funding for the center is part of a larger effort to renegotiate over $90 million in debt service, which also includes roughly $53 million for the redevelopment of the county’s Government Center complex. According to Lisa Wurtzbacher, the county’s chief financial officer, the refinancing is being pursued because borrowing rates have hit very low levels, allowing the county to save money on long-term debt service.

At the end of the meeting, Olson-Boseman turned to a consideration of reopening schools --- “as quickly and safely as possible” ---  an item added last week at the recently-reinstated agenda review meetings. Olson-Boseman said she wanted the county’s Board of Education to begin full-time, in-person instruction for younger students at the start of the spring semester on January 11. While Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order in mid-september allows pre-K through 5th grade schools to operate full time, New Hanover County schools haven’t fully reopened those schools.

“We have to do all we can to get our kids back into school, full time, starting first with our pre-K through 5th graders --- which I want our school board to make happen in January for the start of the new semester. Students need to be in school and the data supports that. National reports have shown we are doing more damage than good by keeping kids out of school and the CDC has reported that Covid-19 is not spreading at high levels inside schools --- and that is what we’re seeing locally as well.”

The Board of Education would have to approve the move to reopen Elementary schools; there is an “action item” on Tuesday’s school board meeting agenda to consider the transition plan, but an up-or-down vote on reopening elementary schools is not guaranteed to happen. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust has pushed back on efforts to rush going to ‘Plan-A,’ or full-time in-class instruction, without a decrease in Covid-19 numbers and the backing of health officials.

Commissioners also unanimously approved $2,756,000 in funding for a $750 bonus for all school employees, to be paid by Christmas, calling it a sign of support for educators and staff. The Board of Education also has plans to match that funding, bringing the bonuses as high as $1,500 per employee.

Commissioner Rob Zapple acknowledged that the reopening issue is “hotly debated throughout the issue” and “the hesitation that some parents may have for their children.” Zapple said younger children at lower risk from Covid-19 were also the ones suffering the most “damage” from virtual education.

Zapple and Olson-Boseman both alluded to equity issues; during the pandemic, schools around the nation have seen increases in failing grades with lower-income and minority families hit disproportionately hard, exacerbating pre-existing issues. The tension between the widening achievement gap and the safety of students and staff has been at the heart of the debate.

Former school board member and new commissioner Bill Rivenbark noted that parents who want to keep their children out of school can still utilize the district’s virtual academy. “I don’t want it to look like we’re sending them to a prison camp,” Rivenbark said.

While the commissioners’ push to preopen schools was presented alongside the bonus, the two are not technically linked. Commissioner Zapple confirmed that the bonuses were not contingent on any decision made by the Board of Education.

New Hanover County Board of Education Chair Stefanie Adams and Superintendent Foust addressed the commissioners; both thanked the county for its support but neither directly spoke to any plans for or against fully reopening elementary schools.

The meeting ended on a concilliatory, if slightly ironic, note.

"I'm excited about what this next year's going to bring with a lot of collaboration and cooperation," Olson-Boseman said, turning to Barfield and adding, "Right, Jonathan?"

After a beat Barfield chuckled --- and then the board broke into laughter.

"It's up to you," Barfield said as Olson-Boseman gaveled the meeting closed.

You can reach Benjamin Schachtman at Bschachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman