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NHC budget proposes $7.6 million in additional funding to offset school district's financial woes

The New Hanover Commission reviewed the budget on April 11, 2024.
NHC YouTube
The New Hanover Commission reviewed the budget on April 11, 2024.

The New Hanover County Commissioners are proposing an additional $7.6 million in school funding. That announcement was unveiled at a commissioners’ budget work session on Thursday, April 12. Initially, the New Hanover County Schools district had asked for a lower amount — $4.5 million — in additional funding.

The increased funding, which would become part of the county's annual contribution to public schools, is designed to help address the district's $20 million budget shortfall.

This equates to increasing the per-student funding from $3,434 to $3,703; however, the county proposes not to provide additional school capital funds, instead asking the schools to spend down $11.4 million capital funding from previous years.

New Hanover County’s Chief Financial Officer Eric Credle said the commission provides student funding based on attendance projections rather than actual numbers. For example, last year’s budget funded the district based on 27,432 students; the actual student population came out to 26,889 students.

While the commissioners said it’s up to the district to decide which positions to fund with the additional dollars, they suggested that this increase could be used to keep 15 classroom teachers, six academically and intellectually gifted teachers, eight enhancement teachers, and 47 teaching assistants. The district could also use the funds to cover salary increases and the rising benefits costs.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield reiterated that the commission has no control over which positions the district funds.

“They can take the $5 million [referring to the $5.5 million in per-student funding] and say, ‘Well, we want to invest it in something totally different, and they still have our money. [...] It's important that people understand that we as an elected body have no authority over another elected body,” Barfield said.

Commissioner Rob Zapple asked Coudriet about the proposed district cuts to exceptional children (EC) staff. At the last school board budget work session, the district's Chief Financial Officer, Ashley Sutton, unveiled the elimination of 81 EC staff.

Coudriet responded, “I know you get emails; I haven't seen any numbers around that. We were with the superintendent; he did not reference the sunsetting of those positions. We can only react to what has been given to us, and EC has not been part of the list that's necessarily proposed to be cut.”

Coudriet added, “We have seen the 110 positions [for cuts], none of those listed that were shared with us were EC.”

According to the county’s presentation, the district plans to lay off 170 positions funded by expiring federal COVID relief funds. It anticipates cutting another 110 positions through staff attrition over the next two years.

Commissioner LeAnn Pierce said she wanted it to be clear to the public that “these are not cutting people’s jobs. These are positions that are unfilled; people are leaving.”

Credle announced that the schools already had 86 vacancies out of the 170 ESSER federally funded positions and that the schools expect the rest to be handled through attrition. The presentation didn’t include granular data on how many employees had resigned versus how many had retired or left for other reasons.

Commissioner Dane Scalise said, “In coordinating with the schools, we were trying this stage of the recommendation to find a way to address those issues that have been brought to our attention. So I hope that that piece of it will be seen by the public. We are listening to you, and we appreciate you reaching out to us to let us know about these things.”

County manager Chris Coudriet also recommended that the county pay the total cost of the contracted services of nurses and school-based mental health therapists, which would total $2.1 million. Those costs, which are usually reimbursed by the school district, would be added to the commission’s general fund if approved.

However, the commission is proposing to keep the funding level for pre-K classrooms at $1.9 million. With the rising costs of salaries and benefits, that means the district will have 10 classes instead of the current 12.

The county also pays for school resource officers (SROs), and they’re proposing $5.2 million for them.

Coudriet told the commission, “Your money is not shrinking. What is happening is that state and federal money is going away because there are fewer students, but your overall contribution not only by ADM [average daily membership, which means student numbers] but real money continues to go up. I don't think that we can help you put enough emphasis on the fact that your amount of money is increasing.”

Zapple said of the overall NHCS budget, “Our county is putting in another $5.5 million, not only this year, that will be every year going forward to make sure that we have the best school system and the teachers in the classroom that we possibly can. That's a huge contribution on our part.”

The school board still has to vote to approve the county budget — an overall $101.5 million. The school plans to have another budget work session on Wednesday, April 17 at 9:30 a.m. at the Board of Education Center.

New Hanover County also funds Cape Fear Community College. They’re proposing $11.9 million in operating expenses and $1.9 million in capital expenditures. This aligns closely with last year’s budget. CFCC President Jim Morton had asked for an additional $1.1 million in operating costs; and $1.8 million in capital costs.

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