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Board members discuss NHCS budget at spring town hall

New Hanover County School Board Member Pat Bradford delivers a "real simple economic lesson" during the April 18 town hall.
New Hanover County School Board Member Pat Bradford delivers a "real simple economic lesson" during the April 18 town hall.

Currently, some of the New Hanover County School Board members seem content with the status quo, receiving the same amount of per-student funding they received from the county last year, $3,434. They’re also getting $10.6 million in capital funding. Some of that will go towards improvements to New Hanover and Laney High Schools.

Related: Top NHCS town hall issues: proposed book-review committee, curriculum concerns

At Tuesday's town hall, Board Vice-Chair Pat Bradford told attendees that board members “don’t have the money” to hire additional staff because of enrollment drops.

Bradford delivered what she called a "simple economic lesson," comparing theinflux of temporary federal support to extra spending money from a "really generous relative" named "Uncle Sam."

Below: Vice-Chair Bradford speaking at the town hall.

"We're fat. We're gonna have steak. We're gonna go to Starbucks. We're gonna treat our friends. We're gonna buy a new outfit," Bradford said, noting that federal funding has now run out and inflation has ramped up, forcing the district to live on a tighter budget.

With the combined decrease in enrollment numbers and federal funding, the district is set to lose 125 positions next year.

Bradford said she “jokes” with the county commission that the public doesn’t understand that the commissioners don’t have access to a “money tree” for the schools.

While Bradford said the county's funding contribution is settled business, Board Chair Pete Wildeboer said there’s still room for negotiations.

“We have not done our presentation yet to them. So, I think that they've given a good number, but we can always look at other avenues through the county commissioners,” Wildeboer said.

Other board members like Stephanie Walker and Josie Barnhart said another way the district can get access to funds is to send in grant applications to the New Hanover Community Endowment Fund.

Former School Board Member Judy Justice was at the town hall and said the members needed to "fight" for additional funds and to ask the county commissioners for more — echoing comments made at recent school board meetings where the budget has been discussed.

Barnhart said that the commissioners would be skeptical of additional funding 'asks' because of the district's declining enrollment numbers and the number of failing schools. She said there has to be a clear plan for these issues if there's going to be that additional request.

Another funding mechanism would be a bond — something Walker brought up. Wildeboer also mentioned the idea, saying he hopes to have a school bond on the 2024 ballot, which could provide considerable funding — most likely for capital projects.

When asked the amount, he said he didn’t have a ballpark, but it would be enough to complete more security measures within the district and to possibly build another school in the southern part of the county, near Carolina Beach.

Board Member Hugh McManus said the district's schools in the northern part of the county like Porter's Neck are "bursting at the seams" and that there had to be additional trailers added to that school.

Wildeboer, Barnhart, and Bradford all said that Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust had made “several presentations” to members of the General Assembly on the needs of the district.

At the April 4 meeting, Foust, along with Wildeboer, Bradford, and Barnhart, said they traveled up to Raleigh the last week in March to advocate on behalf of the district. Wildeboer said these “asks” had to do with additional support for the district’s low-performing schools. He said part of this request was to find funding for tutoring opportunities.

When WHQR asked the district if Foust had copies of any presentations he had given to either North Carolina Senators or local county commissioners, Josh Smith, the chief communications officer for the district said, “Dr. Foust has not made any formal presentations to the general assembly. The official funding request to the New Hanover County Commissioners occurs in May each year. More information on that process and timeline is 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