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NHC school board seeks to prioritize which jobs to save, gets no answers on layoff letters

April 2024
New Hanover County Board of Education budget meeting on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Facing serious budget problems and potential position reductions and layoffs, board members discussed asking both New Hanover County and the New Hanover Community Endowment for additional support. One board member also raised concerns that some employees had already been notified their position was being cut — even though Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and other top administrators have denied this was happening.

On Wednesday, the New Hanover County School Board members voted unanimously to send Chair Pete Wildeboer a list of positions they’d like to keep for next school year.

Wildeboer is tasked with compiling these priorities and presenting them to Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton so that she can do cost analyses on what additional requests the board should make of New Hanover County commissioners.

Board member Josie Barnhart introduced an alternate measure asking the commissioners to give the district $8 million instead of the $5.5 they presented at the county’s last work session but that motion failed.

Wildeboer said he would call New Hanover County Commission Chair Bill Rivenbark about scheduling another joint work session between the two government bodies. The school board is also set to schedule another work session to finalize its request to the commission.

The priorities determined by the board, and priced out by district staff, could include more than the county recently offered. Last week, commissioners discussed an additional $7.6 million in recurring funding to help support the district.

County staff suggested this could keep 76 local positions from being cut. County manager Chris Coudriet suggested they fund 15 classroom teachers, six academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) teachers, eight enhancement teachers, and 47 teaching assistants. However, the school board and district administrators get the final say on how to appropriate the funding; during Wednesday's meeting, district officials discussed the possibility that some of those 15 teachers and 47 teaching assistants could be for exceptional children.

Board member Stephanie Walker attended the county’s work session and said she “didn’t feel connected to the commission’s conversations,” hearing it was an “us” (commission) versus “them” (school board) mentality.

“We are all county people here; these are all our students," she said.

Sutton provided an updated status on the district budget — which included a rosier outlook on federal funding than previously discussed. During the prior budget meeting, Sutton cautioned of a 10-15% reduction in federal funding; Wednesday, Sutton said she no longer anticipates that, although the official federal projections aren't expected in June. State funding projections are expected around May 3.

For comparison, in last year's overall $348.6 million operating budget, the state provided $196.7 million, New Hanover County provided $100.2 million, and the federal government provided $18.1 million (the remaining comes from grants, other revenue funds, enterprise funds, and capital funds).

[Note: You can find Sutton’s current projections at the end of this report.]

Within this context, Sutton updated the current status of the 280 overall positions that could be cut in a ‘worst-case scenario’, which was presented in February. Sutton said about 80 positions are already vacant or frozen, and 57 are pending separation through either retirement or resignation. She anticipates another 33 positions will become vacant by June 30.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust also announced that he and some other senior staff met with the New Hanover Endowment representatives last week to discuss writing an application to fund 26 literacy coaches for three years. However, as more board members asked questions about this application process, district officials said it likely wouldn’t be until January — into the second half of the upcoming fiscal year — when they would find out if they would receive the funding.

Board member Hugh McManus noted that he wanted the Endowment and county commissioners to step in just for this budget cycle.

Concerning letters

At the board’s March 21 budget meeting, board members McManus and Walker said they had heard that some staff had received a letter stating their position was not being renewed — that is, effectively, that they were being laid off. However, Foust maintained no one had received an official letter.

Fast-forward to Wednesday's meeting, McManus named an AIG teacher who had received such a letter and given it to him to read.

He then asked Foust why they got a letter when the board hadn’t approved a budget. He said this move was “destroying” the district’s culture.

“We have problems, and we need to address them,” McManus said.

Foust did not respond to whether letters had been sent out.

Walker then point-blank asked Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christopher Barnes, who leads human resources, whether the high school AIG positions had already been dissolved. Barnes responded that it was a “personnel matter and that he needed to talk to the board attorney.”

The board voted unanimously to hold a closed session to discuss this question.

It's worth noting that the district has already shared the number of specific positions that were slated for cuts — although without naming any individual employees. The identity of the people in those roles could be deduced, but the state's personnel statute makes employees' names, ages, salary, current position, and whether there have been any dismissals a public record. Neither Barnes nor any other administrators noted what statute would make the answer to Walker's question confidential or protected under state law.

A hard budget cycle

For some time officials from the district — along with those at the county, and the City of Wilmington, and the Town of Leland, for that matter — have been saying this will be a tough budget cycle.

Foust said of the position-cutting process, “I am not emotionless about this. This is hard, but we have to present a balanced budget.”

He added that the dollar amounts from the vacant positions listed will be released to fund other jobs throughout the district — and that anyone employed currently might find a position elsewhere in the district.

Walker said she wanted the district to know that when discussing these positions, even when they were 'reduced' through retirement or resignation and not layoffs, schools were still losing positions that had been serving students and the district.

“A loss is a loss. We’re talking about people here," she said.

There were also concerns about the county's budget contribution not providing enough to maintain the district's 12 pre-K classrooms. The board signaled they wanted this funded, with some suggesting redirecting $1.3 million from Port City United, New Hanover County's troubled community safety department.

Regarding the communication process, Board member Pat Bradford said she didn’t feel the district was being transparent and that the “media is going crazy—and not all their publishing is correct.” She also made it a point later to mention that the media hadn’t covered declining student enrollments in the district — an issue that's been covered repeatedly by WHQR, as well as Port City Daily and WECT.

[Note: At the end of this report, you can find WHQR’s reporting on the budget so far.]

Other board members agreed with the statement that the district wasn’t being transparent on the funding process. Walker brought the stack of budget papers from the 2022 cycle — saying that was Foust’s attempt to be transparent. Walker has elsewhere voiced frustration that the budget was not delivered in a more user-friendly (and searchable) digital format.

Foust suggested holding meetings with himself and two board members at a time — which would avoid open meetings law — to review the process behind the budget.

Barnhart brought up during the meeting that the commissioners did not support any additional capital funds this year, telling the district instead to spend down last year’s allotment. She said getting a school bond on the ballot isn’t in the cards for this election year, but maybe for the ballot in 2026.

Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson said that most of the projects the county funded last budget cycle should finish this summer, and the $2 million in funds from the education lottery should get them through the next school year for those “high-priority needs.”

But he told Barnhart that he agreed that a bond is needed, and that yearly county allotments aren’t going to fix all the district’s capital projects.

Most of the board agreed that New Hanover High School still needed significant renovations in addition to what had already been allocated. Board member Melissa Mason said there was a safety issue at New Hanover that could “lead to terrible things.”

Despite discussing complex issues, most board members said they felt better about moving forward and solving budget problems together.

Prior 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