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At New Hanover school board meeting teaching assistants criticize pay and working conditions

NHCS Teaching Assistants speaking at rally before the Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 meeting.
Rachel Keith
NHCS Teaching Assistants speaking at rally before the Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 meeting.

The meeting got off to a tense start as members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys congregated at the back of the room. Once things got underway, teachers, especially teaching assistants, criticized staff shortages and low pay. They issued calls to the board and the superintendent for better working conditions.

Before the board heard the teachers’ complaints, the meeting started with the pledge of allegiance — but it was overtaken by seven members of the Proud Boys, a far-right, and sometimes violent group, standing in the back of the room.  

Some of them stated that they showed up to the meeting to protest the district’s mask mandate, as the board was slated to vote on the measure that evening.

7 members of the Proud Boys standing in the back of the board room.
Rachel Keith, WHQR
7 members of the Proud Boys standing in the back of the board room.

District Teaching Assistants Say They’ve Had Enough

After the pledge, around ten teaching assistants spoke during the call to the audience. WHQR caught up with some of them at their rally before the meeting.

Annalena Mills is a teaching assistant at Forest Hills Elementary. She said the working conditions at her school are dire:

“Without immediate intervention from the district, our students and staff will continue to be harmed, and we're going to have to be forced to work in an unsafe environment. The overcrowding of students combined with a basic lack of resources, and a staffing shortage has created a situation in which students and staff are verbally and physically harmed daily at our school,” said Mills.

Mills also said she’s being forced to have class in a hallway in front of an elevator.

Lizzie Hartman is a Forest Hills parent and agreed with Mills. She said her daughter is still in fourth grade there — but about two weeks ago, she pulled her son out of fifth grade to attend a private school.

“I came out to this meeting because Forest Hills for the first time since we were there in kindergarten has become unsafe to the point that I was really concerned about the safety of my son in fifth grade, the behavioral issues. And mainly I think it's because of the overcrowding in the school and also the understaffing,” said Hartman.

But Hartman said she’s amazed by the teachers but was concerned that some staff there were resigning — and that student behaviors were becoming too problematic.

Karen Shelton also works at Forest Hills as an instructional teaching assistant. She said the lack of staff has consequences for how she does her job:

“I think since the beginning of school, I have only been in my homeroom class one week. Other than that, I am pulled almost daily, if it's not for the full day, it’s for hours or sometimes a half day. We have 20 students in our classroom; it's almost impossible for the teacher to handle 20 students, especially if there's an eruption going on. That means I pulled her to handle that one student, while the other kids are kind of just sitting there not getting any instructions at all. It's not fair to her. It's not fair to our students,” said Shelton.

Karen Shelton is an instructional TA at Forest Hills Elementary.
Rachel Keith, WHQR
Karen Shelton is an instructional TA at Forest Hills Elementary.

Shelton added an increase in staffing and salary to a minimum of $17 dollars an hour would help, as most assistants are paid around $13 an hour — and also a decrease in responsibilities:

“There's so many things that we are not designed to do. We don't have those legal licenses to be behavior specialists, but yet still we have to act because we don't have the resources there. And they need to be provided not only in Forest Hills, but in all schools. That just needs to be there,” said Shelton.

Christine Miranda-Ambriz is a TA at Ashley High School. Like many other speakers, she said she holds many hats in the classroom:

“I'm a janitor. I clean feces and puke when there's an accident. I am a nurse; I check temperatures make ice packs on the go and carry band-aids in my pocket. I'm a student advocate, I ensure students receive a quality education no matter what their disability or language they speak. I am also a de facto ESL TA by ensuring all of our students, non-native English speakers know where they need to be. My number one priority is to ensure your child feels safe so they can focus on learning,” said Miranda-Ambriz.

Miranda-Ambriz also said she and other teaching assistants were upset that they were left out of pay increases, like the ones given to teachers and substitutes. They also suggested that the school district use federal Covid-19 emergency funds to pay for additional staffing needs and for their pay increases.

Board Member Hugh McManus said he heard the teachers loud and clear.

“What we heard tonight is disturbing. If it didn't get my attention or anybody else’s sitting up here tonight, then we're everything we were called. That's what I want to find out. I want people, if they will, to tell us what is good at their school, and what is good in our county. I think we have a lot. We also have room for improvement,” said McManus.

This was part of McManus’s response to the presentation made by a potential climate survey vendor, Possip, selected by district staff. But McManus said he wasn’t sure this was the right company for the job because it only asks about five questions via an app: “I want to see the teachers respond, I want to listen to it. We got to do some work. So the survey, I'm sorry, this is not what I thought at all.”

McManus also said if Possip was chosen as the climate vendor, he would want the board to review Possip’s questions — and to also have the ability to create their own questions for the staff. But from the presentation, it appears that staff would only be able to influence one of the five questions.

McManus and Justice at last evening's board meeting.
Rachel Keith, WHQR News
McManus and Justice at last evening's board meeting.

Board Member Judy Justice also said she was disappointed in what district staff was proposing for the climate survey: “I’m shocked; this is not what I requested.”

Chief Communications Officer Joshua Smith said that they selected Possip as a possible vendor because they have a team ‘of statisticians’ to analyze the data with ‘fidelity.’ Additionally, that they are a ‘trusted third party’ to conduct the survey(s) and that they would be able to aggregate climate trends over time.

Board Member Stephanie Kraybill asked Possip representative Chima Mbadugha and Smith about the cost to contract with the company, but they said it was too early in the process to give estimates for the work.

But Board Chair Stefanie Adams said the vendor provides an ‘innovative approach’ to surveying the staff. Member Nelson Beaulieu agreed with Adams’s assessment of the vendor.

So, for now, talks are ongoing on how to best deliver a climate survey.

Board Discussions Over Teacher Morale

In response to the teaching assistants and the community who spoke in solidarity with the teachers, Board Member Judy Justice brought up a motion to discuss giving staff and students a half-day every Wednesday from December 1st, 2021 to January 26th, 2022. The motion passed unanimously, but when it came time for the discussion, only Justice and Board Member Stephanie Walker came out in support of the afternoon work time for staff.

Justice said, “As you can see tonight, we need help across the board. But right now we need to deal with the immediate problems. We're losing teachers, right and left. And you know, some people are sort of like glossing it over and pretending it's not happening. But [losing] 12 teachers in a month, this time of year is ridiculous. 60 people leaving in the district and a lot of them are TAs, then we have bus drivers, we have people leaving everywhere. Someplace, we've got to give some relief. Somebody we've got to publicly make a statement, to me, to our teachers.”

She added, “If we can give the teachers, on Wednesdays, that three hours to plan to do that professional development that's required by the state, to do grades. I mean, there are multiple things they can't do during the week, so they [are probably working] 60 hours, some of them 80 hours a week now. I mean, I've been in those classrooms, I've been a teacher, I know what they're doing, and it's breaking my heart, and they can't teach well when they're doing that.”

But Board Member Hugh McManus said he didn’t want the students to miss more school. Chair Stefanie Adams and Member Nelson Beaulieu agreed. Dr. Foust also said that his staff was not prepared to speak on such a change to the school calendar and that he “didn’t agree” with Justice’s proposal. He also said that it’s important for students to be in school for their AP and EOC exams.

There was no vote on Justice’s proposal, but Chair Adams said the board’s December work session would be to figure out ‘innovative solutions to supporting schools.’

Board Member Stephanie Kraybill said about the work session get “clear on outcomes” for the meeting. Also during this discussion, Adams encouraged Justice to call Dr. Foust to discuss ideas on this work session topic.

During his report to the board, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said the district was conducting a salary audit — but blamed the stalled state budget for a lack of pay raises and noted that local funds alone cannot sustain most district salaries. He added when he’s seen Senator Michael Lee, who’s co-chair of the Education Committee, and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, that he’s asked about the funding for staffing.

Foust also said he’s recently met with his student, classified (which includes teachers assistants), and teacher advisory groups. He mentioned that the main theme that emerged from the teacher advisory group was to add more teacher workdays to the calendar.

Upcoming Vote on the District Mask Mandate

Also on the board’s agenda was to vote on the district’s mask mandate. Members voted 6 to 1, with Nelson Beaulieu dissenting, to delay the decision on masking in schools until next week.

The school board will wait for local health officials to decide on the countywide mask mandate this Friday, November 12th.

That decision will influence what the school board decides for teachers and students when they reconvene at a special meeting this coming Monday, November 15th.

Board members are requesting that public health staff be present to answer questions.

When it came time to close the meeting, Stefanie Adams announced she was stepping down from her role as chair but will continue on as a member in 2022. The vote for her replacement will likely take place at the board's December 7th meeting.

WHQR sent a list of questions — including confirming the attrition numbers raised by Judy Justice — for the district to answer after last evening’s meeting, we will update the story when they respond. 

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR