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New Hanover School Board passes contentious budget request for increased county funding

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Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust responded to board member questions during the special budget meeting.

On Friday, May 6, after three failed attempts to vote for a recommended budget, the New Hanover County School Board finally voted 4 to 2 to send the county commissioners a request for a $17 an hour minimum with a 1% step increase for all classified staff.

Chair Stephanie Kraybill spoke on the significance of Friday's vote — that it's about the bigger picture: “We should look at the overall dollar, not what’s in it because we’re going to decide that later. This is not about teaching positions, staff positions, it’s not about that – it’s about how much we’re going to ask so then we can go and make those harder decisions.”

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The breakdown of asking for $17 an hour with a 1% step increase over three years.

According to the district, this proposal could end up cutting a total of 230 positions over the next three years – including both vacant and filled positions – in order to give classified staff this pay increase.

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With the $17 an hour plan for classified staff, the following Elementary and Secondary Education Relief funds will be repurposed to support the pay increase.

Krayill and Member Nelson Beaulieu ended up voting against the $17 an hour measure, instead voicing support for the district’s recommendation of $16 dollars an hour, with a 1% step increase.

Kraybill and Beaulieu’s main arguments for the $16 an hour plan stemmed from the district cutting less overall staff in the future – a projected 134 position cuts ($16 an hour) over the 230 ($17 an hour) – and that more capital projects could be accomplished.

For example, Kraybill was concerned that certain HVAC projects wouldn’t be funded with the $17-an-hour ask. Member Judy Justice interjected that potentially the district could apply for funding for HVAC and facility updates through the New Hanover Community Endowment fund.

But, ultimately, Members Pete Wildeboer, Justice, and Stephanie Walker said they wanted to show the teaching assistants their support in asking for the $17 an hour request. Walker said this particular recommendation was the one given by the HIL consultants who prepared a salary study for the district on classified staff raises.

Wildeboer said, “They need to have a living wage – and they asked for $17 an hour.”

Justice added, “We are going to lose people if we don’t pass the $17 an hour, and this [vote] shows [we] are doing our best to try and make their lives better.”

Kraybill pushed back against Justice and said that the district doesn’t know yet if they are “going to lose people,” if they don’t pass the $17 an hour minimum.

Beaulieu also said, “the schools are not in crisis,” responding to comments Justice made earlier in the meeting.

Turning to Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, Justice also said she wanted to see more of each department’s discretionary funds – and Walker chimed in to say she’d like to see more about what programs the district funds, as she hears from teachers that there are ones they don’t use on a consistent basis.

Foust responded that board members can sit in on their budget deliberation meetings – and that he could send a more detailed breakdown once the official budget plan is approved. He stated further, “The budget is tight – and there’s nothing to hide.”

Board Member Stefanie Adams left early in the meeting after protesting that members needed to “listen more than talk,” and wasn’t there for the vote.

Prior to the final vote, members were split between the two options ($16 at 1%, $17 at 1%) – and at one point Beaulieu asked if they could get Adams on Zoom for the vote. But Board Attorney Colin Shive interjected to say a member cannot vote on an issue if they aren’t present for the vote’s deliberation.

So, in the end, Member Hugh McManus decided to vote with Justice, Walker, and Wildeboer for the district’s salary study recommendation of $17 an hour.

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This shows the percent increase that certified staff will receive.

At the start of the meeting, Foust outlined that the district, in order to pay for the step increases for classified staff, would likely have to get back into alignment with the state’s recommended allotments for district positions. For example, some locally funded assistant principals, instructional support, and AIG staff positions would likely be cut over a period of three years.

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Rachel Keith, WHQR
These are the positions (see the last column) that would likely be cut over a three-year period in order to pay for the classified staff pay increase.

Foust said, “We can’t have everything; we have to cut to do this,” meaning they have to cut positions for the pay increases for classified staff. He reiterated throughout the meeting that they have to fund what’s important – and he pointed to the board’s budget priorities: number one being student safety and number two being supporting the district’s staff.

Foust did also review the district’s total investment in teachers and teaching assistants (TA).

For example, a 14-year teacher makes $58,140 a year, but there’s also an additional $29,058 the district pays for annual and personal leave, retirement, FICA, and hospitalization, bringing it to a total investment of $87,198. For a 15-year teaching assistant, who makes $27,590 would have $17,908 going toward those same investments, for a total of $45,498.

The district also said that they are pulling about $6 million out of their fund balance to pay for teaching assistant bonuses, which is in line with what the county asked them to do. If the district does this, then its fund balance will be reduced to about $10 million.

“That’s scary, that means everything has to hit the nail on the head every year,” said Foust.

Foust also shared concerns about this lower fund balance in the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, as that balance is supposed to help in times of emergency.

Interim Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton said the total cost of the damages from Hurricane Florence was about $13 million for the school district.

But Walker said if there’s another natural disaster, the county would likely step in to issue emergency funding.

Another future financial constraint Foust brought up was that the teacher supplement that the county commissioners give every year “is not a requirement, so at any given year they can take that away from us,” he said.

Further, Foust mentioned that this entire budget is predicated on projected enrollment numbers for this year. He said that if those numbers continue to drop, they’ll have to look into cutting more of the district’s budget.

But Foust did say that at the request of the board, he’s now put back in the position of the Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer.

The district hopes to present this finalized budget to the county commissioners in early June. The proposal does represent $12 million more than the county had intended to provide. From the commissioners’ budget work sessions, they’ve said the school system will receive $85,428,146, but from Friday’s vote, the total request is $98,454,371.

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This shows the district's official request to the county commissioners.

The county commissioners could still vote the proposal down.

Member Wildeboer said if the commissioners do vote it down, the board would have to “talk and vote about it again.”