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NHC school board delays budget vote again, will meet Thursday

NHCS board on June 25, 2024.
Rachel Keith
NHCS board on June 25, 2024.

The New Hanover County Board of Education did not pass a budget on Tuesday. They’re now set to hold an emergency meeting late Thursday morning to revisit the vote. After a long bout of silence, with members not wanting to introduce a motion to approve the budget, Board Member Stephanie Kraybill reluctantly made the motion to approve it. Only she and Board Chair Pete Wildeboer voted to approve. Member Josie Barnhart was absent from the meeting.

The main point of contention was Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust's lack of clarity on which district positions would be saved for the upcoming school year. Foust said that with the fluid state of retirements and resignations, it would be difficult to say which positions would stay.

However, that wasn’t enough information for Board Vice Chair Melissa Mason, especially for exceptional children (EC) staff positions.

“I think our biggest concern is the uncertainty. There are so many numbers that have been thrown around. Personally, my biggest concern is having heard from teachers that our EC department is absolutely hurting, and even the consideration that those positions could be put on the back burner bothers me. It concerns me for our EC students and our EC staff,” Mason said in an interview with WHQR.

Board member Stephanie Walker agreed about the lack of transparency about the status of positions throughout the district.

“I didn't feel comfortable voting for a budget when I didn't have all the answers. Honestly, we came up with questions and didn't get answers. So I think until we're satisfied, that's when we vote. And I understand time is of the essence,” she said.

Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton had asked the board to approve the $5.5 million in additional operating funds from the county commission and to give Central Office enough flexibility to move current employees into vacant positions they qualify for throughout the district.

Sutton and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christopher Barnes called this moving the “marbles into the holes.”

Sutton said that if the board doesn’t vote on the budget soon, a “reduction in force is unavoidable.”

Barnes said that employees in the positions of social workers, bus aides, K-6 teachers, and teacher assistants weren’t retiring or resigning at their projected rate. This meant they would have to continue to budget for those employee salaries and benefits, adding more pressure to an already constrained budget.

Board member Stephanie Kraybill asked Barnes about each position's projected ‘attrition’ rates. Barnes responded, for example, that their target number for social workers is 25 positions, but they currently have 39.

The board insisted they needed to know how many positions Foust still needed to be cut to achieve his balanced budget.

District staff responded that it’s at 156. The board wanted more clarity on what exactly those 156 positions were, and other members, including, Hugh McManus and Stephanie Walker, said they needed to ask the commission for more money to keep them intact.

“Morale sucks,” McManus said, adding that he was still upset by the commission refusing to meet with the board about this tough budget cycle. He also said these cuts would “destroy the school system. It’s horrible.”

Sutton said if they approved the proposed budget that evening, she and Barnes could start moving people into current vacancies, bringing the number down to 120 jobs that the district would eventually phase out. She added that she needed to retain $2.3 million of the $5.5 million in additional local funding to maintain these positions if there were no resignations or retirements — and to hold current employees' salaries harmless for one year if they take another district position that pays less (meaning that employee would continue to make the higher salary for a year).

Kraybill said, “That’s still a lot of people.” She also mentioned that certain people wouldn’t likely qualify for jobs throughout the district. “What if there are no holes for the marbles to go?”

Barnes acknowledged that by saying, “Yes, we can’t have a mechanic teaching biology.” Earlier, though, he had suggested that “elementary teachers can move into other positions easily.”

Foust maintained his stance that if the board approves the budget soon, there wouldn’t be a need for a “reduction in force” or layoffs. He also called out the media, saying they continue to publish about position “cuts.”

Foust also said he’s waiting for a more accurate picture of the district’s finances once the state and federal budgets come down—likely in October. He was also worried about the unknowns, such as what would happen if the legislature passed another mandated raise. If it’s a locally funded position, the district would be on the hook for paying that increase.

He also unveiled that the 279 estimate of position cuts earlier in the year stemmed from those jobs over the state position allotments — after Walker had asked where that initial number came from.

He acknowledged that this was “tough” and that the district doesn’t have the money to do what the board wants.

Nonetheless, Sutton said the board needed to pass the budget soon to make payroll next month.

While they didn’t vote on the budget, the board did approve a six-month contract for new legal counsel with Crossley McIntosh Collier Hansley & Edes PLLC.

The next meeting is Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Board of Education building.

  • View the board’s proposed budget from Tuesday, June 25
  • View the law firm’s six-month contract
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