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NHC school board delaying final budget vote, trying to save more positions

NHCS board on June 18, 2024.
Rachel Keith
NHCS school board on June 18, 2024.

On Tuesday, the New Hanover County Board of Education unanimously decided to delay the official budget vote until next Tuesday at its agenda review meeting. The board listened to Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust when he said he needed more time to analyze which staff positions could be saved.

This week, New Hanover County Commissioners approved increased funding for the schools, including $5.5 million more in operating costs, which includes charter schools, that school board members can decide how to use. The district had asked for nearly twice that in order to save hundreds of positions.

At the beginning of the year, Foust said 279 positions could be lost due to the district’s $20 million budget shortfall. He has more recently been saying that the school system wouldn’t have a “reduction in force” but would have a reduction through anticipated “attrition," meaning teachers and staff who resign or retire.

On Monday, the county commission passed a $543 million budget in a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple dissenting. About $104 million will go to the schools, including $5.5 million in additional annual operating funding.

The commissioners also approved $1.9 million to support 12 Pre-K classrooms. However, with increasing salaries and benefits, the county’s level of funding will only fully fund 10 of them, and the school would need to use rollover funding or additional federal Title I funding to support all 12.

The county is also not allocating any new capital funding, as they claim the schools still haven’t finished spending the $11.4 million from prior years.

The county will also provide the schools with 61 school resource officers, 47 nurses, and 35 school-based mental health therapists.

Superintendent Foust said the budget is still “a thousand-piece puzzle,” and he needed time to figure out how many positions the district could save with some of that increased funding—a little over $3 million. The board’s priorities are to save exceptional children staff and teachers for advanced intellectually gifted students.

“As the superintendent, everyone's like, ‘Tell us, tell us. Tell us,’ I have to find the exact number because human resources (HR) has to verify it, and then finance has to make sure that that's the right number,” Foust said.

The remaining $2.3 million in additional funding would ensure that the district has enough to pay salaries and benefits for employees who may eventually leave but haven’t retired or resigned yet. Furthermore, if staff move into new positions that don’t pay as well, the district has to hold their current salary harmless for at least a year. Sutton said they must have enough in the budget to cover those scenarios.

Everyone employed in the district is “in holding,” said Foust, "except for Central Office positions that we have moved.” According to Board member Stephanie Kraybill, some positions have been outright eliminated, like the Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer and the Chief Communications Officer.

Another wrench in the budget discussion is the recent announcement that NHCS won’t receive its annual Head Start grant worth about $3 million. Those funds typically go to Dorothy Johnson Pre-K Center, which has over 50 staff members. The district will have to figure out how to fund these positions without these federal dollars. WHQR has reached out to the district to understand why they had to enter into a “compete status” for this year’s funding cycle — and why the money didn’t come through.

While the board is looking to Central Office to figure out what they can do with the commission’s level of funding, board attorney Jonathan Vogel introduced the idea that the school board could utilize a provision in state statute to potentially negotiate more money from the Board of Commissioners, a situation the unfolded in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district several years ago. Vogel said the first step in this process would be to hold a meeting between the two boards within 7 days. If they could not agree, they could start a formal mediation process.

School board Chair Pete Wildeboer said that he had asked Commission Chair Bill Rivenbark for a joint meeting earlier in the year and said Rivenbark had agreed that would be a good idea verbally, but nothing materialized. Then Wildeboer said he directed the board clerk Crystal Buie to contact the county’s clerk, and according to Wildeboer and Buie, the county said there would be no time for a meeting.

Board member Hugh McManus said that was disheartening.

Nonetheless, the board didn't go through a formal request of the commission for this joint meeting in seven days. Kraybill had mentioned it wasn't worth going through this process.

Another idea to help save more positions was decreasing the amount of the local supplement, which is currently $9,000 on average. Board member Josie Barnhart introduced this but later said it would only be for incoming teachers, not ones already receiving the supplement.

On the county side, one suggestion for more funding for positions came from Commissioner Zapple at the county’s budget vote on Monday. Zapple asked the district to spend down its fund balance to cover some of its position loss. Wildeboer agreed with Zapple, saying to trust the commission when they say they can handle unforeseen circumstances and will transfer money to the schools if needed.

Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton said they currently have a little over $1 million in fund balance but anticipate having around $3 million next fiscal year. However, she maintained that the district has to have a sufficient fund balance to cover payroll until the state and federal budgets pass. That sometimes comes as late as September or October.

She said they also have this fund balance to cover the lag between reimbursements from state and federal agencies. Furthermore, Sutton said she anticipates a certain staff attrition rate, and if they don’t receive it, they also have to cover those continuing salary and benefits costs, potentially with some of this balance.

Another proposal came from board member Pat Bradford, who suggested the district take millions from the curriculum budget to help keep staff, but Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrice Faison pushed back, saying that these are important K-12 materials for the over 25,000 district students.

*This article has been updated to reflect the number of staff at Johnson Pre-K

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