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NHC School Board wrangles with budget woes, student underachievement, and ongoing crowd decorum issues

NHCS Board Members, May 3rd, 2022
Rachel Keith
/
WHQR
NHCS Board Members, May 3rd, 2022

It’s back to the drawing board for the New Hanover County Schools budget. Tuesday’s board meeting became contentious over issues involving financial constraints, student achievement, diversity work, and the rules of decorum.

Looking for funding

The district has been looking for ways to increase teacher and staff pay, in part to fight growing attrition rates. But county commissioners — who approve local supplemental funding each year — have made it clear they won't be footing the bill for school raises this budget season. That's led some school board members to look to other potential funding sources.

Near the start of the meeting, County Manager Chris Coudriet told the school board the district cannot count on funding from the hospital sale, including $1.25 billion in the private New Hanover Community Endowment and $300 million in the county’s stabilization fund. The former is a private foundation, which the county has no control over; the latter can be accessed by commissioners, but only with a supermajority vote.

Member Judy Justice said the schools are in crisis — and pushed Coudriet on whether the commissioners could release some of these funds for classified staff raises: “If you did have a 4 to 5 majority, it would possible to use these funds for the concerns of the teaching assistants (TAs), oh my gosh, for all of our staff?”

Coudriet said he disagreed with Justice’s assessment, and that the stabilization fund (or escrow fund) is only supposed to be used for voter-approved debts, limited obligation funds, and or an unforeseen economic crisis.

Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman also interjected during Justice’s exchange to say that the district could “absolutely not” use any of the $300 million in the stabilization fund.

When Board Member Judy Justice was questioning Coudriet, Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman came to the podium to tell Justice she couldn't use the county's stabilization funds for schools.
Rachel Keith
/
WHQR
When Board Member Judy Justice was questioning Coudriet, Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman came to the podium to tell Justice she couldn't use the county's stabilization funds for schools.

Coudriet added that even though the economy has “raging inflation” that it wouldn’t trigger an emergency release of the money.

“I could not with a straight face argue to the board [of commissioners] that using it to fund teacher supplements or supplements for other staff as a use. That’s my opinion," he said.

Justice responded, “I just wanted to clarify, that’s your opinion.”

Coudriet said, “That is my opinion, and I’m not going to advance that argument to the board, so I guess, it is in fact, a fact.”

Coudriet did clarify it is within the parameters of the New Hanover County Endowment to fund “public education – primary, secondary, post-secondary,” but that the county does not have control over who gets that money.

Member Stefanie Adams finished the board’s conversation with Coudriet by saying that it was “embarrassing” that county staff had to explain to the members how the endowment and the stabilization funds work.

Students are falling behind. Now what?

Following the county’s presentation, Dr. Foust gave his superintendent’s report, focusing on the relationship between teacher effectiveness and test scores — and how students are falling behind, especially students of color.

He gave the example of 3rd-through-8th-grade performance on language arts tests. Foust said he is currently only looking at figures from the 2018-2019 school year, as this was, according to him, the last “clean” year of data.

“If you look at African American to white, it's a 44.1% gap, we have work to do. That's what we're saying, we have work to do," he said.

2018-2019 NHCS Achievement Data
NHCS
2018-2019 NHCS Achievement Data

Foust also brought up that only about 60% of the district’s students who take Advancement Placement (AP) exams pass.

“How many of our schools have 80% or higher on AP exams? We don't have any. So what do we have to do? We have to find out, what's the alignment? And so we've got to find out what professional development we're giving them. [...] So we have to make sure that we are teaching to the level of rigor that the assessment is giving,” said Foust.

The superintendent also addressed the idea that there isn’t enough, “funding in the buildings.” That what the district really needs to work on is “academic output.” To demonstrate this, he presented the breakdown of the per-student spending on the part of federal, state, and local sources.

2020-2021 NHCS district funding by source and type.
NHCS
2020-2021 NHCS district funding by source and type.

Foust said that the district’s lowest nine performing schools, “get first dibs on resources.” And that a majority of this per-student funding goes toward salaries and employee benefits.

After Foust’s presentation on the student achievement gap, Member Hugh McManus said he had concerns about the district’s approach to attendance and grading, in which students can’t receive less than 50% on an assignment.

“Number one, I think we have policies that will add to student success, and as politely as I can say, I’ll never support the 50 because there are zero expectations with a 50. [...] We’ve had no attendance policy this year. I believe attendance is paramount to holding students accountable," McManus said.

McManus added, “If a child got a 50, [...] and they don't have the basic content, because I gave him a 50. And I didn't expect him to be in class, and we build upon that, then that teacher [the following year] is held accountable, particularly if they're a state-tested class. And now what hope does that teacher have with those kids who we basically passed with no expectations?”

The board was slated to discuss the 50% minimum policy, along with attendance, but the meeting was adjourned at 11:30 p.m. — and members said they’d finish their agenda at a later date.

At the call to the audience, City of Wilmington employee and a former district parent Natosha Tew, who gave misinformation about the Covid vaccine, went over her allotted time, and refused Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill’s directives.

Sheriff's Office deputies told Natosha Tew to leave the premises after not compiling with Kraybill's directions.
Rachel Keith
/
WHQR
Sheriff's Office deputies told Natosha Tew to leave the premises after not complying with Kraybill's directions.

Tew did eventually comply, saying on her way out that she, "took her kids out of this hellhole district," but that she continues to "fight for your kids."

Tew is an emergency management coordinator for the city's fire department. While the city did not address Tew's involvement with law enforcement, they sent a statement saying they "are aware of the incident," and that her comments "were made in her capacity as a private citizen, [and] she was not speaking on behalf of the city."

Later in the evening, members discussed the rules of decorum, speaking about the incident with Tew. Member Stephanie Walker told the chair it’s important that these rules be codified for the public.

“What has happened over this past year is out of control. [...] You threw out somebody that clearly violated a state statute, which you asked and asked and they didn’t [listen]. And then you followed through, and I think if you’re consistent with that, we can stop a lot of this from happening,” said Walker.

Member Pete Wildeboer agreed with Walker.

“I like the idea that when people sign up, they see these rules, so they can't say, ‘I didn't know.’ ‘Well, yeah, you did, because when you signed up it’s clearly listed,’” said Wildeboer.

He added he didn’t want the board to run afoul of free speech rights, but that it’s “good to have written rules, so everybody knows what to expect when they talk,” said Wildeboer.

The board is hoping to send the proposed decorum rules (see below) to the policy committee. Board Attorney Colin Shive said he was also going to look into the proposal to ensure the board isn’t running into any First Amendment violations.

Budget

Finally, the board turned to the budget. Foust said in order to give classified staff a raise the district had to rearrange priorities, including dropping the diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and other proposed positions.

Walker said cutting the DEI chief and the office, worth around half a million dollars, is unacceptable, “I just want to be clear to people who are listening, especially people who have been doing this work for a few years, that it's not the board.”

But Foust was adamant, adding that he even changed how federal Covid relief funds were being used to make ends meet.

“It has to be the board; we have to find the money to fund the board’s budget.[...] The county commissioners said they would not fund us at $122 million dollars, so we had to take all that $57 million of Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) and we reappropriated that money – and every [proposed] position that we could find money, we had to take that. It’s not that we don’t want the position; it’s that we can’t afford it,” said Foust.

But the board did direct Foust to try and reinstate the DEI position — and they voted unanimously to direct him and his staff to look into several more budget options to present to the county commissioners.

Those options include a $17-hour minimum wage for classified staff – which includes teaching assistants – with a 1% step increase, a $16 minimum with a 1% step, and $16 with a 2% step increase.

The board meets this Friday, May 6, to finalize the budget to send to the commissioners. Foust will then present it to the county in early June.

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