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Facing $20-million shortfall, hundreds of positions could be cut from NHCS budget

NHCS board at the February 12, 2024 budget work session.
NHCS YouTube
NHCS board at the February 12, 2024 budget work session.

At Monday’s New Hanover County Board of Education budget work session, members got briefed on the worst-case scenario for staffing cuts.

If no one retires or resigns from their positions, the district is looking to cut 279 employees — about 30% of those would be classroom teachers, 29% would be instructional support staff, and 25% would be teaching assistants.

About 23% of these 279 positions were funded through federal Covid relief dollars, known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) that are set to end because the funds are exhausted. This equates to a loss of about $10 million, according to a district spokesperson. Another roughly $10-million shortfall comes from the district's fund balance.

For support staff, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam said she’s anticipating a cut of about 11 school nurses — and cuts to other positions like social workers, exceptional children (EC) teachers, and mental health therapists. A preliminary budget projection showed a reduction of 17 EC teachers and 69 EC teacher assistants.

“There will be caseload increases. There will, just like there’ll be caseload increases across the board for every position type thing. And so that's going to be felt. It's definitely gonna be felt,” Varnam said.

That means that a lot of these positions will have to be shared between schools.

Board Member Josie Barnhart suggested that they reclassify some of these positions so that they would be cheaper to hire for. Another of her suggestions was to have more 'Memorandums of Understanding' (MOUs) for support services, meaning some of these would no longer be on the district’s balance sheet.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and other top administrators repeatedly referred to the possible cuts as a “right size” fit for the district.

It's worth noting that Foust said these numbers could change as they get closer to presenting the budget to the New Hanover County commissioners in April. Foust said everything has gotten more expensive because of things like inflation, and,

“I go back to just the insurance alone, to keep the lights running, the AC going in these buildings that [all has increased]. And then you add in all of those raises that go along, we just can't sustain it,” he said.

Foust was referencing anticipated state raises (4% on average) for school employees — which will also require increased local funding. There’s also a pending 7% increase in health insurance costs.

Despite this, Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton said she anticipates a $1.5 million reduction from the commissioners because of declining student enrollment, which translates to a decrease of about 400 students.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christopher Barnes also highlighted the issue that the state’s allotment formulas for positions have stagnated over the past ten years, and are not “keeping up with the needs of the district.”

For example, the state allotment for an instructional support person is 1 employee per 210 kids — and no elementary school can receive all four of the following positions: a media specialist, counselor, social worker, and instructional coach.

The state also does not provide for any middle or high school enrichment teachers — those would be art, music, or physical education.

Board Member Hugh McManus said of the impending cuts, “We’re going to get slammed,” and said to his board colleagues that they needed to ask the commission to fully cover the on-average $9,000 local supplement for its employees.

Board Member Stephanie Walker said she wanted to ask the commission about increasing the district’s fund balance, as it has a $10 million shortfall.

The school board is planning another budget work session for early March. Foust told the board they have discretion over what positions and programs are “untouchable” and which are not.

The New Hanover County Commission’s next budget session is scheduled for Monday, February 19 at 1:30.

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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