© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NHC Association of Educators asking county for classified staff raises, totaling $17.6 million

Christine Miranda Ambriz, NHCAE's incoming treasuer, asking for a classified staff raise in November 2021.
Rachel Keith
Christine Miranda Ambriz, NHCAE's incoming treasuer, asking for a classified staff raise in November 2021.

The New Hanover County Association of Educators is asking the county commissioners to pay all classified staff a minimum of $16 dollars an hour with a 2% step increase — all in one year, a request worth $17.6 million.

After discussion of wage increases at the school board’s recent budget work session, the district will make a similar ask — but spread over a two-year period.

The incoming New Hanover County Association of Educators (NHCAE) leaders also conducted an educator survey that supports their ask. NHCAE said the six-week survey included 724 educators in the district. Those who took the survey left a total of 541 comments about how to improve both the district and how to allocate budget funds.

Survey results

Cynthia Silva, the newly elected president of the group whose term starts July 1, created and analyzed the survey along with other incoming NHCAE officers.

“Sevent-six percent of the educators who took the survey believe that investing in educators is the number one priority for our budget, either through pay increases or bonuses. And that probably stems a lot of the 50% of the respondents say they currently work a second job for extra income,” said Silva.

According to Silva, the majority of survey respondents said, “the salary, permanent raises was [priority] number one and then number two was less micromanagement, less of this ‘box curricula’ and to trust us as professionals.”

She also said Master’s pay continues to be an issue for certified staff, “So I’m a teacher that gets hired or gets a Master’s degree, they are not going to be compensated for that like surrounding states.”

And it doesn’t look like the legislature in Raleigh will be taking up Master’s pay anytime soon. According to state Senator Michael Lee, who co-chairs the subcommittee on education, policy, and appropriations, the research shows it’s more beneficial to pay teachers for National Board Certification rather than Master’s pay.

Asked why NHCAE felt the need to survey staff after the district conducted its own climate survey in December, Christine Miranda Ambriz, the organization’s newest treasurer and a teaching assistant, said, “because it rolled out when we were already off, and nobody had a chance to look at their emails. People are already at the airport, out of the state, out of the country, out of town, and by the time we got back, some of us weren’t able to take the survey.”

Other concerning survey findings, according to Silva, are that only 46% of respondents say they are definitely returning to their jobs in the fall — and the written comments show they’d like to see more support staff (more TAs, social workers, EC staff, substitutes) working in schools, an improved system of support for dealing with “disruptive and dangerous student behavior”, and changing the school calendar so that staff can have more frequent work and mental health days.

Silva said that she was able to share the results with Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill and Member Stefanie Adams: “I felt like they were some positive meetings, and we’d like to meet more members of the school board to talk about it in-depth.”

According to Silva, when it came to the issue of increased support for teachers Kraybill and Adams asked about adding school volunteers to help cover staff duties like lunch.

Silva said yes, that would be helpful, but according to her, it’s a temporary fix: “And it’s back to inequity where your Title I schools struggle to get volunteers because those parents are sometimes working multiple jobs.”

A high-stakes ask

A breakdown of the funding necessary to support a $16 wage and 2% step increase.
A breakdown of the funding necessary to support a $16 wage and 2% step increase.

Miranda Ambriz said if county commissioners reject the $17.6 million request for the upcoming fiscal year, the results could be serious.

“They’re going to see a lot of people leave. A lot of great classified staff that we barely have holding on by a thread. I’m one of those people that is barely holding on by a thread. I make more money at my second job,” said Miranda Ambriz.

Silva and Miranda Ambriz said they were frustrated that they, along with other staff in the district, couldn’t follow along during the board’s budget work session on April 19, 2022, as there were no attachments to show what Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and his staff were proposing.

“When I watched the board meeting, when they went over the budget, there was no link where I could see the budget, and that was frustrating. We would like for them to be transparent. That's about building trust with the community, and they should have the budget proposed budget released to the public,” said Silva.

Jacqueline Dalessio is the incoming vice president of the chapter and a special education teacher in the district. She started advocating for a pay increase after her school’s teaching assistants asked her to support them while they spoke at a board of education meeting last fall.

“And I went and I stood on the sidelines, and I was nervous, and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I will never speak at one of those,’ and by the next month, I was in the fight. That just inspired me to say, ‘yes, we have to fight for the people who need to be in our school buildings, who need to be here to love our kids.’”

And Dalessio said when she and other educators use their voice, it’s for the betterment of everyone in the district.

“What we hear from other people is that they feel like because we’re speaking about staff, and we’re fighting for staff that we aren’t fighting for students, and it’s not two different battles,” said Dalessio.

NHCS says leadership is listening

Dr. Chris Barnes is the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. He said Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust is listening to their concerns.

“He has several different advocacy committees he meets with every month with classified staff, teachers, students, and principals. So every month, he has sort of a time set aside and scheduled to sit down with each of those groups to keep his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the district and ask for feedback as well,” said Barnes.

Silva said she’s been invited to one of the teacher advocacy committee meetings with Foust but that “there can’t be just one person going to the meeting, it needs to be all voices heard, and getting communication out. Because when I leave the meeting, I’m like, ‘Well, how are we communicating what happened here?’”

Chair Kraybill said the members are listening, too.

“We have commissioned a task force where Dr. Barnes is pulling together a wide variety of our employees that filled out the climate survey and talking to them about their entire compensation package and some of those intrinsic other benefits; there are some intangibles that don’t require money for our folks to feel good about the work,” said Kraybill.

The board members on that committee are Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus.

Those intangibles, according to the leaders of NHCAE, would be things like better communication from NHCS's central office — and lunches and planning time free from other duties.

NHCAE also want to see more small-group learning opportunities with their students and smaller class sizes, along with more employee appreciation and a reduced focus on standardized tests.

Bottom line: Compensation

According to Dalessio, the compensation piece is the most important.

“A lot of other professions, they are given the monetary equivalent of raise or a bonus or something, they’re not just told, ‘Oh well, wear jeans two days a week,’” said Dalessio.

NHCAE also said they’re unhappy about bus monitors and cafeteria workers not receiving a minimum of $16 an hour. As of now, the proposal is for them to have a minimum of $15. The district said they plan on allocating $27,755 for bus monitors and $410,076 for cafeteria workers to get them to $15 an hour.

Silva said, “They excluded bus monitors and child nutrition workers from the [$16] raise, which then they turn around, and they ask, ‘Why is morale low?’ Well, when it's when you divide people like this and leave people out. So another example would be that the assistant principals and social workers were not part of a bonus that was given out earlier this year. So again, leaving out groups of people build resentment when we all are working with the students.”

Also during the district budget work session, Foust said cafeteria workers have to raise their own revenues. The district also clarified and sent the statement, “Child Nutrition operates as a business, and revenue is intended to cover expenses (labor and supplies).”

These revenues, according to the district, are then redistributed.

Dr. Foust plans to bring the final school budget to the board on May 3rd. Then it’s up to the county commissioners whether or not to approve that budget.

Silva said she’s hoping to share the results of the NHCAE survey with the commissioners, too, and is optimistic that they will approve the additional $17.6 million for classified pay raises. As NHCAE members have pointed out, the commissioners are proposing in the county staff budget to raise all employees to a minimum of $16 an hour.

Silva said, “I think that the New Hanover County Schools classified employees deserve the same respect.”

Alternative funding?

If the commissioners don’t pass the pay increase, Silva said, they’d like the school board to use federal Covid-relief funding to make up the difference.

“If they cannot do it all at once to the use Covid funding for that year one," Silva said.

However, Kraybill said that wasn't possible.

“We have already approved how our Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) will be spent. And they are allocated. And that has been shared with the public and has been shared with the county commissioners. So the ESSER budget really does not play into our budget because ESSER funds are one-time funds. They are not recurring. So our budget is for what we're doing this school year, and extra funds are completely different," she said.

For many, the district's ESSER funding plan has been murky.

At the board’s budget work session, Board Member Hugh McManus said they “haven’t even discussed the ESSER funds yet.”

And according to Silva and the NHCAE leaders, the allocation of ESSER funds isn’t clear — and they said they haven’t seen how the $88.6 million has been —and will be — spent.

WHQR did obtain a draft allocation of the funds in February 2022, last updated by the district in May 2021 (see below). NHCS declined a request for an interview on the ESSER spending plan in early February, noting that the district's Chief Financial Officer, Mary Hazel Small, was retiring.

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