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NHCS tackles negative climate-study feedback, and a host of other issues

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NHCS
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WHQR
The district's analysis of the quantitative survey data.

At Tuesday's New Hanover County school board meeting, members discussed the results of the staff climate surveys — which contained some painfully negative feedback. Also on the agenda: the use of federal ESSER funds, rising costs for elementary schools, the Sophic Solutions contract, the Call to the Audience format, and the pandemic.

About a third of the district’s employees responded — with 80% of certified staff, mostly made up of teachers, saying they spend “a great deal of time on students’ social and emotional challenges” and only 28% saying the district values them.

Member Nelson Beaulieu took note that many teachers say they’re not appreciated, and said he wanted the board to come up with solutions as to how they can make the staff feel valued.

From the results, board member Hugh McManus said his number one concern is workload, as only 31% of respondents say they agree with the statement, “[t]he schedule allows adequate time for staff preparation and planning.”

McManus said, “We need to look at prep time and reduce their load. Now, that’s easy for me to say but that’s loud and clear — it jumps off these pages. We have to reduce their workload, so what can we reduce without affecting the academic arena, but giving them some time? They are slammed.”

He added the district needs to come up with a clear plan as to how they will address issues pointed out by the survey(s) because, according to McManus, “We never or respond or defend ourselves. We need to tell people what we’re doing.”

For member Judy Justice, it’s about putting these concerns into action, “if we’re not honest, nothing will change.”

The board will have a long list to work on, as member Stefanie Adams pointed to addressing issues about trust, time, safety, and student behavior. For the latter, the certified survey found that about 41% say they “spend too much time disciplining students.”

But overall, 70% of certified respondents say New Hanover County Schools is a “good place for [them] to work and learn.” 61% of classified staff, mainly consisting of teacher assistants, said the same.

The board is now debating what to do with the results – suggestions ranged from creating a task force to staff ‘stay’ interviews on how the district can improve.

Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said she would like for the results of the survey to inform how they draft the district's new strategic plan, which the board is in the midst of crafting and holding a work session for on January 28th. She said she wanted a “documented list of suggestions” to incorporate into this plan.

As for the qualitative responses (i.e. written responses), the district has yet to release the 938 comments. Chief Communications Officer Joshua Smith said his department is now redacting any personal information from the responses.

Negative responses

However, Smith did report to the board that about 90% of the comments were neutral or negative. The district released an executive summary of the comments (see below).

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The concerns ranged from too many new curriculum initiatives to the 50% grading policy, where a student would receive a 50 even though they did not turn in any work, lack of salary increases, student misbehavior, communication issues between the central office and the schools, and a lack of professionalism among the board members.

During the meeting, a number of members said the comments were “hard to read.”

In response, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said he meets with several district advisory groups, which include teachers and teaching assistants, where he talks through issues with these groups regularly. The problem, he said, is that those members don’t always take what was discussed back to their schools, but said he’s working on ensuring his and central office’s views are communicated.

As for the 50% grading policy, at the next board meeting, he hopes to discuss the reasoning behind the policy. Foust also said next school year, there will be no new initiatives or curriculum changes, and the district’s focus is now solely on implementation.

Smith also said that district administration will soon be able to address concerns about salaries and bonuses once the salary compensation study is complete in March 2022 – and he intends to conduct ‘pulse surveys’ for both staff and parents so that he and his communications team can more consistently answer their questions and address their needs.

Related to hearing more from staff and the board’s constituents — the members decided unanimously to send a proposal for creating three town halls this spring and summer to the policy committee, aiming to get the idea on the board’s agenda in February.

Member Pete Wildeboer suggested the idea and proposed dates in March, July, and September where the board’s interim meeting would be entirely dedicated to a 2-hour listening session. Kraybill said that her work with the Family Communications Committee also supported a similar recommendation.

Transfer of Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER)

In the survey results, about 44% of classified staff, like TAs, agree with the statement, “I am satisfied with opportunities for my professional growth.”

In response to that, the district is pulling from ESSER funds to pay for 10 two-year scholarships and 10 one-year scholarships for teaching assistants who want to become certified teachers. Chief Financial Officer Mary Hazel Small added that the district plans put $4.3 million in reserve for bonuses for the next school year.

Board member Justice asked why couldn’t the money be used for bonuses this year, but Small responded there had already been ESSER and state bonuses approved for this school year, but that it’s the will of the board when these funds would be appropriated.

This also falls short of what the district’s teaching assistants have been asking for, which is a starting minimum wage of $17/hour. Dr. Foust has said the only way in which this could be appropriated is through approval from the county commissioners during the upcoming budgetary cycle(s).

In terms of ESSER fund transfers completed at the January 18 meeting, the board approved an overall $9.4 million. About $5.1 million will be used for facility improvements and repairs, improving air quality through installing and upgrading HVAC systems for certain schools throughout the district, and addressing learning loss and mental health issues. The district is allocating $180,000 to provide school leaders and staff training to address trauma.

ESSER Funding breakdown — Article continues below.

The board also touched on a number of other issues.

Budget shortfalls for elementary schools

The district is also reporting that the construction costs for the RiverLights, Pine Valley, and Mary C. Williams elementary schools have “skyrocketed” due to supply chain issues, material and labor shortages, and inflation. That the $43.4 million RiverLights and $44.3 million Pine Valley projects are underbudgeted by about $16 million each, Mary C. Williams by $8.4 million. The district’s next step is to present updated building designs to both the board and to the New Hanover County Commissioners next month. That’s when they decide the next steps for these projects – and where to find the additional funding to complete them.

Sophic Solutions

Members voted 5 to 2 to end the district’s contract with the equity audit firm Sophic Solutions, with Nelson Beaulieu and Stefanie Adams dissenting. The specific motion to reinstate their contract was brought forth by Beaulieu, with Adams seconding.

Beaulieu referenced WHQR’s reporting on the petition to keep it, as the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee was not consulted on the move, according to him. He said that the cancellation of the contract was done “behind closed doors” on the part of some board members, likely referring to Stephanie Walker.

But Member Judy Justice fired back that they didn’t need more expenses in terms of equity consulting work, as they recently hired Assistant Superintendent LaChawn Smith as their new equity officer. She said Dr. Smith could do the work that Sophic Solutions suggested in their equity audit of the district. Beaulieu responded that $17,000 is an “excellent expense” for the district to invest in, that they have the budget to continue work with Sophic.

Agenda management policy

Policy 2330 dictates how items are placed on the agenda — and who controls that placement. Members voted 5 to 2, with Beaulieu and Adams saying ‘no’ to the updated policy that allows any two members to list an item for discussion within two meeting dates of a request. Those members will then have to send this item to the chair or vice-chair for placement on the official agenda.

In sum, Beaulieu and Adams wanted the chair and the superintendent to control the placement of these items. Board member Judy Justice said in response, “we need to share power equally, and not passing this policy takes power away from us (the other board members).”

Call to the Audience

After much deliberation, the members decided to keep the general format for the ‘Call to the Audience’. The idea to change Policy 2310 came up in the January 11 Policy Committee meeting where Kraybill mentioned that some advocate groups were taking up too much time during the public comment period.

But moving forward, the members decided that only future tweaks would be permissible. Those slight changes would be to allow more people to sign-up in person, per the request of Member Pete Wildeboer, and whether the online sign-up time could be revised. Specifically, Beaulieu asked if the time could be changed from 8 a.m. Monday to 7 p.m. so that more teachers and staff are available to sign-up.

Chair Kraybill put forth the idea of having a lottery system like Wake County. She also suggested a random raffle once the community shows up to speak — or if 5 or more people are signed up for the same agenda item, that they would then designate a spokesperson for the issue. McManus seemed supportive of a spokesperson method, but that ultimately failed.

Kraybill said she did research on other school districts in the state on how they conduct their public comment periods and said that NHCS “offers the most time” — and that her goal of the discussion was to provide a way for more diverse voices to be heard and seen.

[Editor's note: One method that offers both transparency and variety is Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' decision to post the entire record of each public comment period.]

The Pandemic and the District

The only item that Foust discussed during his ‘Superintendent’s Report’ was an update on the Covid-19 pandemic. He told the board the district has now hit its highest rates of Covid-19, with 586 people testing positive as of last Friday, January 14th.

Foust said the district is at an ‘elevated risk’ for losing essential services like transportation, child nutrition, and instructional staff — but will continue to operate in person. He also mentioned the district paid the state for thousands of N95 masks for students and staff to protect from the high transmission rate of the omicron variant.

While the New Hanover County Health Board decided not to reinstate the countywide mask mandate on January 18th, the board is set to decide on whether to extend their mandate at their February 1 meeting (under state law, the board must reconsider masking at least once a month).

Survey Results

View the Certified Results here.

View the Classified Results here.

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