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North Carolina has finally passed a budget. Here's what is - and isn’t - in it for the school system

North Carolina Legislature
Wikimedia Commons
North Carolina Legislature

In November, North Carolina legislators and the governor finally passed a state budget. WHQR takes a closer look at what's in it for the school system, what isn't, and how advocates feel about it.

Increase in Minimum Wage for Non-Certified Staff

Tamika Walker Kelly is the President of the North Carolina Association of Educators. She said while educators are disappointed with this state budget, she’s glad to see the $15 dollar starting minimum wage for school staff like bus drivers, teaching assistants, and cafeteria workers.

“And so we are glad to see those provisions. But by and large, this is not a budget to be lauded or celebrated because it doesn't do enough to keep your child's favorite teacher in the classroom,” said Walker Kelly.

State Senator Michael Lee, the co-chair of the subcommittee on education, policy, and appropriations, is also supportive of the state’s raising of the minimum wage for non-certified staff:

In an interview with WHQR, Lee said, "we really made the effort to bring the minimum wage for non-certified staff in our school systems to $15 an hour. It was also the focus on the community college system as well.” (You can find the full interview at the end of this report.)

However, teaching assistants in New Hanover County have held two rallies in both November and December to ask for their minimum wage to start at $17.

Lee said, “So when the state raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour, New Hanover County's different, Wake County’s different, Mecklenburg is different. But in a lot of these other counties, the local system can't afford to raise the local non-certified staff to that level. So you have this discrepancy between state positions and local positions. And so we were very cognizant of that.”

And at the New Hanover County School Board December meeting, the members discussed that if the $17 starting wage for TAs was to occur, the likely source would be from a local one, more specifically, from the county commissioners during the next budget cycle. But Board Member Hugh McManus said the commissioners haven’t yet signaled the support for this increase.

But according to Russell Clark, media relations manager for the district, although federal funds like the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSR), can't be used to increase TA base pay, the district can give "recruitment and retention bonuses more than once if the data support the need for this and if the state approves it via an application amendment."

The district also reports that they have close to $84.5 million left in Covid-related funding.

‘Hold Harmless’ Student Enrollment Provision

Tamika Walker Kelly said she also appreciates the ‘hold harmless provision’ in this budget, which doesn’t take away funding from schools if their enrollment numbers drop.

But that ‘hold harmless provision’ goes away next school year. At the December 2021 board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said he’s anticipating this ‘average daily membership’ (ADM) declining.

“And just remember our ADM will change, so you’re going to get a decrease in funding next year,” said Foust.

The New Hanover Schools district reports that last year it receives close to $11,000 combined from local, state, and federal sources per student. More specifically, the state allocated $6,872, the county, $3,329, and the federal government, $627.

According to Clark, this year’s per-pupil allocation information isn’t available because the state hasn’t finalized “allotment adjustments for the budget changes.”

Lee said the reason they put in the 'hold harmless provision': student enrollment projections are difficult to make in the pandemic. And he said there’s a trend that’s starting to emerge: enrollment in public schools is declining.

“So as we move forward, if we still see that it’s not reasonable to have school systems be able to make some reasonable estimate and projections with regard to that, we’ll have to look at that again, if we find that the trend of students leaving traditional public schools continues to decline," he said.

The trend Lee describes has alarmed educators around the country — particularly when it comes to students who may not have moved to charter or private schools but may instead have fallen through the cracks, possibly to join the workforce.

From NPR: Where are the students? For a second straight year, school enrollment is dropping

Teacher Raises

Walker Kelly said during this budget cycle, teachers and staff needed a meaningful and substantial raise. While some have discussed an 'average' raise of 5%, Walker Kelly said, that can be misleading because some teachers will receive less than that.

“Well, in the past, part of North Carolina’s legacy is that we were making great strides towards the national average. And then over the past 10 years, we’ve seen an underfunding of public education. So we did support the governor’s proposal around the budget. But what we have now is an average of 5%, which gets a little tricky when talking to everyday people because some of our most veteran educators will not actually see a 5% raise, it’s more like 1.3%, which is equivalent to filling up your gas tank during the week,” said Walker Kelly.

New Hanover County Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Mary Hazel Small that the average salary increase for teachers and instructional support staff locally is an average of 2.5%, the range increase is from 1.3% to 5.4%.

Senator Lee said when looking at raising teacher salaries up to the national average — which, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, is close to $64,000 for the 2019-2020 school year — the public should take into account how the state compares with others in terms of cost of living and tax rates.

North Carolina's average teacher salary is around $55,000 — and ranks 37th.

“I think that when you start talking about dollars in a stagnant way, as opposed to dollars as a percentage of the cost of living, I think that’s where you get a lot of the discrepancy. Do we need to do better? We do. We’re continuing to increase teacher salaries every single year I’ve been in the legislature,” said Lee.

Lee also touted, “There’s $100 million in there to provide teacher supplements over and above the pay scale. And then $100 million goes to the least wealthy of the school districts in the state, but New Hanover County is actually included in it.”

In the budget, this newly allocated ‘low wealth’ supplement per teacher in New Hanover County is $532. WUNC reported claims that the formula was politically based. For example, “Several relatively large, wealthy counties like Johnston, Forsyth, Chatham, and Alamance would also receive this benefit. Guilford County is excluded, while it currently has the 12th highest local pay in the state, behind those four.”

Lee said, “It wasn’t political at all, you can run the numbers. When you have a Wake County that's paying its teachers $10,000 more than another county, or Wake County has an $8,000 or $7,000 supplement, and another county has zero, it's hard to make those claims. And again, it kind of scales up. So it goes from a significant number: $5,000 to $4,000 to $300 or $400. And it just topped out because those major metropolitan areas are pulling teachers from other areas. And that's a real concern.”

Master’s Pay Didn’t Make It In

Walker Kelly said teachers in the state can’t understand why there wasn’t a reinstatement of Master’s pay in this budget cycle.

“It is one of the legislative priorities here at NCAE, and our educators across the state who pursue higher education to benefit their teaching practice, their profession, and to ultimately benefit their students, have not seen or heard an adequate explanation as to why we cannot do that. And so we lose teachers here in North Carolina to South Carolina, or to Virginia, because they compensate their educators for Master's degrees,” said Walker Kelly.

Lee responded to Walker Kelly’s claim: “You know, I supported Master’s pay for a number of years, but if you look at the research and student outcomes, what you find is that National Board Certification is really the high watermark. I mean, that’s the gold standard, so what we do is provide a 12% supplement for National Board Certification in the budget.”

He added that the legislature also provides for enrollment into the program, but “it doesn't require you to complete the program in order to get reimbursed. So what we're really trying to do is focus our energy and effort on National Board Certification. And I would actually like to increase the supplement in further years if I'm able to do that as well.”

Mental Health Resources

According to Lee, there's also money in the budget for a school psychologist in each district. But advocates like Walker Kelly want to see the funding for mental health resources go further.

“We need more investments in student health resources from school nurses, psychologists, social workers, also additional mental health resources for our students. And we didn't see our budget go far enough. Our legislators did the bare minimum in this budget,” said Walker Kelly.

And she wants teachers and school staff’s mental health to be a priority, too: “And we've asked our educators to take on more tasks without relieving them of anything else. And so not only are they trying to teach content to students, but they're also checking in with students for their mental and social well-being. But then they're also tasked with making sure that our students in school communities stay safe during COVID.”

In response to shortages of teachers and staff, Lee said what’s driving that is a ‘laundry list of things.'

“It has to do with not only just individual school districts, and individual schools, and leadership and compensation, I mean, it's really that broad range. And I co-chair, the Hunt-Lee Commission, and it's where the Hunt Institute is led by Governor Hunt, he's the chair Emeritus, and Senator Howard Lee and myself are the co-chairs, and we're looking at a lot of these issues,” said Lee.

He also mentioned that providing more flexibility for teachers, and professional development will help, as he said the legislature included, “significant amount in this budget. Not enough, but a significant amount. And hopefully, we're going to increase that through the years.”

But Walker Kelly said the situation is dire: “So our teachers are almost burned out, many of them are past their physical and mental healthy limits, in order to do the jobs that they love. And so one of the things that is really important is that we talk to our educators about self-care; our school systems talk to educators about self-care, but we haven't actually made it possible for educators to engage in self-care and community care.”

Local Programs in the Budget

Lee said there’s funding for a two-year pilot program, ‘Career Academies’ that’s a partnership between New Hanover County Schools, Pender County Schools, and Cape Fear Community College.

The program provides a two-week program for 300 7th through 9th graders who are at-risk. According to Lee, it's designed to introduce these students to career opportunities like working in welding, public safety, and/or electrical and chemical technologies.

Lee said this program was created to decrease the dropout rate for at-risk students: “So if we can get students engaged and involved in how education relates to the workforce and making money, hopefully, we'll be able to keep them engaged within the school system longer.”

And the state budget allocated $8 million to The Innovation Project to create the North Carolina High-Tech Learning Accelerator, which New Hanover County Schools has signed on to take part in.

Lee said if students enroll in this program, “When they graduate, they'll be able to go right into the technology workforce, making $60,000 to $80,000 a year, because they have been trained through those who are actually in the industry." Lee said students will be able to enroll (likely both online and in-person), in the next 12 to 24 months.

Issac Bear Early College

The budget also has $994,000 allocated to the planning of a new facility for Isaac Bear Early College on the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s campus; currently, the school has held classes in a temporary trailer for over a decade.

But the funds won’t be allocated to UNCW until a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is signed between NHCS and UNCW on the specifics of the project, which include identification of the site and the sources for funding the facility.

The budget stipulates that this MOU has been signed by June 30, 2022, or the funds revert back to the state’s general fund.

Lee said the design could be a “co-occupant structure where you have university students and folks from Isaac Bear, or you have a standalone building kind of like they have now, but it'll actually not be a temporary structure like they have now. And I've talked to UNCW and the school system, and I think they're excited about it, and hopefully, we'll have a good result here soon.”

Listen to the extended interview with Senator Michael Lee here.

Link to New Hanover CountyLocal Salary Schedules

Link to newState Salary Schedules

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