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New Hanover school board faces calls for higher TA pay, kicks off climate survey, and pledges better behavior

Supporters of TA wage increases gathered in front of BOE.
Rachel Keith
Supporters of TA wage increases gathered in front of BOE.

New Hanover County’s teaching assistants are calling for the school board to raise their base salaries from $14 dollars an hour to $17. But the superintendent and district staff say their hands are tied until the next budgetary cycle.

Teaching Assistants speak out

Several district teaching assistants spoke at a rally before the Tuesday board meeting, decrying unfair pay and working conditions.

Rebecca Beitel has been a teaching assistant in New Hanover County Schools for 15 years. She said she still makes below $30,000 — and that the district should tap into federal ESSR funds (part of the CARES act) to recognize the work of TAs like her.

“But we are paid like we don’t matter, like we are disposable. We need to use the ESSR funds of $88.5 million to give us a raise now. We are going broke more than ever. With the rising cost of living in this expensive city, you could take a survey to see how the teacher assistants feel about receiving Covid relief funds, even though these funds are not recurring, and I know the answer would be we need this money now,” said Beitel.

One teaching assistant, Patrice Tierney, from New Hanover High School, said at the rally, “With my current salary, I can't even afford necessities. I go to food pantries just to make ends meet. I have many bills that go unpaid.”

Patrice giving her speech at the rally.
Rachel Keith
Patrice giving her speech at the rally.

Like Beitel, Tierney asked that the district pull from federal Covid funds or the sale of the hospital to better fund teacher assistant positions.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a group of people that are more dedicated and more giving of themselves, especially with the labor shortage. When that happens, the phrase, ‘you get what you pay for,’ comes to mind and our children deserve much better. It is far past the time for you to recognize the quality and pay for what you get now. We need you to do everything you can to invest in your staff members,” said Tierney.

Then there's Sunny Stamper, a third-grade beginning teacher at Forest Hills Elementary, who spoke in support of the teachers' assistants at her school. And she added that the situation at her school has not gotten any easier, “We have an exceedingly high turnover rate for staff at Forest Hills caused by staffing shortages, low salaries, and unsafe conditions. Every day I see co-workers crack under the weight of responsibility and exhaustion, juggling new curriculum, pandemic protocols, additional duties, needs of students with adverse experiences, and finding enough time to even use the bathroom.”

Annalena Mills, a Forest Hills TA, who spoke to WHQR and to the board last month, was back again to speak during the board’s ‘Call to the Audience.’

She told WHQR that the dire situation at the school has not changed since November. Mills said that they received some new computers, but no one, including Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust nor his administration, has come to visit her classroom that she holds in the hallway.

Mills still wants to know whether the district can do anything about the overcrowding at the school — she said, "Could the district offer to move some of these students to other schools that don't have these problems?"

During the 'Call to the Audience' period, when a speaker advocated for rising their base rate of pay to $17, the TAs and their supporters stood up in solidarity.

Community members stood in solidarity with those who were advocating for pay raises.
Rachel Keith
Community members stood in solidarity with those who were advocating for pay raises.

Budget issues

But during the budget presentation, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said it’s not possible for the TAs to receive this base rate of pay anytime soon.

“For the board, in our budget season, you would have to ask for our local funds, you’d have to go to the commissioners. The state is already set; federal is already set. The only way you’d be able to do it is to make a request to the commissioners of how many millions you would need,” said Foust.

During the budget discussion, McManus said that during the board’s previous meeting with the county commissioners, they relayed the message that they didn’t have the money for salary increases for classified staff.

McManus also wanted the public to understand that “it’s not as simple as us saying, because if we were I would give them a raise today, and we need to look at that, and we need to discuss how we can do it — or why we can’t do it. We need to have that discussion — everyone thinks that the board can just do it, that it’s magic, and it’s not.”

When it comes to using federal money, district officials say ESSR funds cannot be used, but they are looking into whether another round of ‘retention’ funding is possible.

Board Member Judy Justice said it’s been “very difficult” for her to get information about the budget and the allocation of ESSR funds. She also said she’s been asking — for the past couple of years — for the district to look at how to provide a local supplement increase for classified staff: “You have to start somewhere,” said Justice.

Board Member Pete Wildeboer asked if some money could be diverted away from Central Office, which was followed by loud cheering from the TAs present at the meeting.

Foust countered that there are not many positions being added at Central Office, and he gave the example that there are only three administrators at Forest Hills, implying that more are needed there.

He said at the next meeting he wanted to "clear up the myth" that the district doesn’t offer enough funding for its employees: “We are well over what the state offers.”

According to the district, most TAs will be receiving the $1,000 ESSR ‘retention’ funding that was in recognition of their work during the pandemic. They will also receive a $1,500 bonus in January from the state.

As for their base rate of salary, the state budget designates their hourly wage at $14 an hour, which will start in January. But, TAs will receive their next step increase of $15 an hour in July 2022. District officials said the state will also retroactively pay for that $14 wage increase from August to December.

The district is also in the midst of conducting a salary audit. Dr. Foust said he’s hoping to present those results to the board in February. During his superintendent’s report, he also said he’d like to evaluate which TAs have 4-year degrees to potentially offer them full-time teaching positions that are open in the district.

Foust also brought up the contention that in the state budget, there is a provision to not take away money from the district because of a decrease in student enrollment. However, that goes away next year, so the district could lose considerable funding if enrollment continues to decrease. Chief Financial Officer Mary Hazel Small said the ballpark funding figure between the state and the county is $11,000 per student, and that 86% of the district’s budget goes toward salary and benefits, including retirement.

Staff Climate and Strategic Plan Surveys

Last month, the company Possip presented to the district on a potential climate survey for staff. Board members Judy Justice and Hugh McManus openly criticized this survey method, so the district pivoted to a license for Survey Monkey, which cost $300.

Chief Communications Officer Josh Smith said the questions were derived from the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s climate survey, and that the responses will be anonymous. Smith said that the district will ensure the ‘integrity of the survey’ that staff will access it through their ‘staff portal.’

There are two surveys, one for certified staff like teachers, the other for classified staff like teaching assistants.

Some of the 30 questions ask whether they agree with the following statements: “I look forward to coming to work every day.” — “I spend too much of my time disciplining students.” — “The best staff are retained at this school/department.”

At the end of the survey, there is an option to write a response to, “Is there any additional information you would like to share about your experience as a New Hanover County Schools employee?”

The board approved the surveys in a 7-0 vote.

The surveys are now open for district staff to complete, and they will close at the end of the month.

Smith said the responses will be exported for the board to view the first week in January.

In addition to the staff surveys, Board Member Stephanie Kraybill encouraged the public to take the strategic plan survey that will help the board and their consultants, NPH, LLC, write the new plan. This is also open now and will close at the end of December.

Chair Vote

Toward the end of the meeting, Stephanie Kraybill was voted as the newest board chair and Stephanie Walker is now vice chair.

Walker did vie for the position of chair, with her only endorsement coming from Judy Justice. For Kraybill’s chair position, it was a 4-3 vote, with Walker, Justice, and Wildeboer dissenting.

But after the chair vote, the board did unanimously support Walker becoming the next vice-chair.

Before this vote, former Board Chair Stefanie Adams had the board take a look at Policy 2120 -- Code of Ethics for School Board Members. She said that “certain behaviors have occurred that have pressed this policy,” and that she wanted board members to figure out “who we are trying to be.”

During this discussion, Kraybill highlighted in the policy that board members should "read all their documents before meetings", that controversial issues should be "considered fairly and without bias", which she followed by saying that the board needs to work on that, and to “model civility to students, employees, and all elements of the community by encouraging free expression and engaging in respectful dialogue with fellow board members on matters being considered.”

Kraybill followed the part about civility with, “I’m not taking myself out of that; I need to work on that. Other board members need to work on that as well.”

She added that all board members need to respect the confidentiality of information, and that individual board members should not resolve public complaints personally, that the board should collectively tackle the issue.

McManus added, “We need to address all concerns: Why do we do something, why we can’t do it. We need to be open and honest about it.”

Later when Kraybill was elected chair she said, “I know that we as a board are going to disagree, and we’re going to have to debate issues before making decisions and setting policy, but I don’t want us to be disagreeable as we do that.”

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