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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

NHC school advocates rally to keep jobs, address massive budget shortage

Those who attended the "Invest in New Hanover County students" rally
Rachel Keith
A crowd attending the "Invest in New Hanover County students" rally.

On Tuesday, March 12, education advocates in New Hanover County held a rally drawing attention to the district’s multi-million dollar budget shortfall. The crowd called on officials to invest more in public schools.

There were over 20 speakers that gathered at the "Invest in New Hanover County Students" event, hosted by the New Hanover County Association of Educators (NHCAE), New Hanover Democratic Party (NHCDP), NHCS Democratic board candidate Dr. Tim Merrick, NHC Educational Justice (NHCEJ), New Hanover for All, and NHC American Federation for Teachers (AFT).

Some Democratic candidates who are running for office were also among the speakers; they were Merrick, Jerry Jones (NHC school board), Judy Justice (NHC school board), Jonathan Berger (House District 20), and Marlando Pridgen (Congressional District 7).

They gathered together to decry the worst-case scenario of eliminating 279 jobs from the district (if no positions can be effectively ended through retirement or resignation) — and to ask the county commission to fix the $20 million budget shortfall. Other topics of discussion included the need to increase respect for the profession, criticism of the state’s investment in private school vouchers through ‘Opportunity Scholarships’, the release of Leandro funds, and the future of collective bargaining.

Donna Gargett, a special education activist, led the group in chanting, “Teachers aren’t line items. Invest in our students. Social workers aren’t line items. Invest in our students…”

Lisa Espy is a school counselor at Murrayville Elementary. She’s also the vice president of the New Hanover County Association of Educators (NHCAE). She said support positions like social workers and counselors are indispensable, as those jobs are among some of the proposed cuts — about 27 combined.

“We spend our time making sure kids get clothes, kids get food, kids get resources. And there's not going to be a school counselor in every single school. As we stand right now there's a hiring freeze, and New Hanover County staff are being broken up and people are being moved around,” Espy said.

She added that she anticipates her school’s social worker will be cut — and for the rest of the district’s jobs on the chopping block, “How can we say 279 people missing will not have an impact?”

Matt Bigham is an exceptional children (EC) teaching assistant at Winter Park Elementary. He said that he and his school colleagues continually have to buy their supplies, even ones like paper towels. His speech called on state legislators to do more.

“I mean, the cost of living is already making it so some of us don't know we can stay much longer. I mean, that 4% raise we got from the state was a joke. It's just getting tougher and tougher, but we love our job. We show up every day. I'm there by 7 a.m. We do the best we can. We've seen progress with the kids. It's just very challenging,” he said.

Jacqui Dalessio is the president of NHCAE and a special education teacher at Winter Park Elementary. While she wasn’t among one of the evening’s speakers, she told WHQR she hopes, at a minimum, that the county commission will come up with at least $12 million to save some of these jobs.

She said she's frustrated with the finger-pointing between the school board and the commission.

"And I think sometimes they [school board] try and push it off on the county commissioners, and the county commissioners pushed it off on the schools," she said. "There has to be accountability in both places, and we have to hold everybody's feet to the fire and say 'It's not OK.'

But as for the source of this money, she said, “We tell them the problem and they come up with that solution, that's part of their job.”

And Dalessio said the district is already making decisions on which positions will stay — and which ones will not.

“We've already been told at my school that [has] six special education TAs that we're going down to three next year. Also, our AIG (academically and intellectually gifted) specialist is being split between two schools. And it's just ridiculous. They're already telling people that their positions will not be here. And we do not even have a budget that has been passed,” she said.

[Editor's note: Board member Hugh McManus referenced similar incidents during Tuesday night's meeting, but noted that no final budget decisions have been made. The school board has not been presented with a final budget yet, when they are, they will have to approve it before it goes to the county.]

Budget negotiations between the county commission and the school board are ongoing; local funding accounts for about 30% of the budget. The state constitutes the largest source at 57%; for federal, it’s 10%. The commission is set to have its next budget meeting on Thursday, March 14 at 1:30.

Prior NHCS budget reporting

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