SALISBURY – Rowan-Salisbury Schools received an unprecedented amount of federal funding over the past year, but funding will only go so far as to keep the district’s staff competitive.
In total, the district raised $ 96.9 million in federal funds. The amount is spread across approximately $ 70.6 million in COVID-19 aid and a federal grant of $ 26.3 million granted in 2020 to advance renewal plans.
The district has some of the least competitive salaries for its employees when compared to comparable school districts. In June, Superintendent Tony Watlington collapsed where the district landed. Teachers, teaching assistants, caretakers and bus drivers are at the bottom of the lists in eight or nine districts.
The employees are roughly divided into certified and classified categories. Certified employees include faculties such as teachers and school principals. The classified employees include bus drivers, nutrition workers, maintenance and teacher assistants.
During the school committee meeting last week, Watlington briefly touched on the subject, noting that the district lags not only behind the more affluent surrounding districts in terms of pay for classified staff, but also behind comparable districts.
A bus driver for RSS starts at $ 12.07 per hour while a starting bus driver for Davidson County starts at $ 16.07 per hour. A salary study for classified employees is ongoing.
RSS chief finance officer Carol Herndon said it is rare for a salary study to return whose results show pay should stay the same. It is likely that the district will need to implement the study in a phased manner rather than implementing its recommendations in a single year, Herndon said.
Chief Operational Officer Anthony Vann said the district is struggling to recruit and hold classified positions under its umbrella. He said there were several reasons. Pay is one. Another is the high level of competition from private companies and other school districts for people with the skills RSS is looking for. The COVID-19 pandemic also contributes to this.
While demand fluctuates, Vann cited the example of around 50 vacancies in a workforce of 200 nutritionists. Central Office nutritionists and other RSS staff work in cafeteria lines in schools, much like staff who stand in as substitute teachers to make up for lengthy teacher absences.
Vann said he has lost several very skilled employees to the surrounding counties and sees companies in the city offering signing rewards.
“It makes it difficult to keep qualified staff unless you can compete with them,” said Vann.
Where the county will find the funding for the raise is still open, but there are a few options.
Why not the federal money?
Some of the federal aid money will go into the pockets of the faculty and staff, but it will not provide the county with a solution to long-term funding goals for the people who work there for two reasons: used to pay staff, and it will run out of money too .
The aid money is divided into three parts based on the primary and secondary school emergency fund. The district received $ 4.7 million from the CARES bill in the early days of the pandemic, which has already been issued. The remaining federal aid came in two installments, a package of $ 20.3 million in the final months of President Trump’s administration and $ 45.6 million under the US bailout plan passed earlier this year.
All three aid packages came with slightly different rules. The last two packages, which make up the bulk of the funding, were not issued. The use of the latter packages must pass a three-step test to either prevent, reduce or respond to COVID-19.
Currently, the district is trying to shift some of its funds to pay grants to employees taking on additional duties due to COVID-19, but the state has consistently declined districts to use the money to largely pay the salaries or bonuses. In the meantime, the $ 20.3 million must be spent by the end of September 2023 and the $ 45.6 million the following year.
Herndon said it was dangerous to try to fund permanent bonuses with volatile cash because the district could not sustain increases after the grants expired.
“Our goal is to find sustainable funding,” said Herndon, adding that the district is in the process of setting a price for the implementation of the wage study.
The district will spend more than $ 30 million in aid on repairing and upgrading HVAC systems in its schools. This will achieve a long-term capital goal by removing this funding from the capital requirement list of more than $ 200 million in the district’s facilities.
These expenses are acceptable as they improve the air quality in the buildings. When all work is complete, every school in the district will have HVAC systems with fresh air exchangers.
The $ 26.3 million grant is different. Its express purpose is to give teachers incentives to advance the work of the district on its special renewal status.
Earlier this year, the district announced its first grant incentive program, which will provide $ 585,000 in signing and retention bonuses at 13 schools. The district management has discussed creating an incentive payment with the subsidy at their schools in need, in order to also attract teachers.
Where does the district find money?
North Carolina is one of the few states that has left the funding of its public schools to the total grace of the state and local governments.
School systems in NC have no authority to collect taxes or generate income of their own accord, except through grants and private donations. The overwhelming majority of the district’s $ 207.6 million budget for this fiscal year comes from a combination of federal, state and local funds awarded directly by these institutions.
Most of the money comes from the state. One possibility is for the state to pass one of the proposed budgets currently circulating in the legislature. The budget could include either a $ 13 or $ 15 minimum wage for civil servants, with the state government assuming the state-funded portion of the increase. But a budget passed by the legislature that could come at the end of this month would also apply nationwide.
The second place to find funding is through the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. That year, the commissioners cut nearly $ 500,000 from current expenses for the district, while the local portion of salary and welfare expenses increased by $ 416,000. Local funding is $ 38.8 million.
“One of the things our county needs to sell to businesses and potential citizens is quality schools,” Herndon said, adding that it requires quality staff and competitive wages.
Herndon said RSS should meet with the commissioners in person to have a conversation so that district officials can understand the district’s needs. Letters sent to district officials each year may lack the emotion and passion behind the district’s work.
The district has introduced itself to commissioners in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made this meeting difficult.
The county also provides almost all of the capital funding for the county. Small purchases of equipment such as furniture could be made, but local money is used to build schools.
The final way to find money is to exercise some financial discretion. Renewal gives the district more government funding flexibility than the average district, making it easier to keep track of the district’s spending.
Herndon cited as an example of buying curriculum materials and analyzing whether that product gives the district what it wants. If not, RSS could test competing products or free up that money for other initiatives.
“If we are serious about offering competitive wages to our employees, we need to look very carefully at what we are currently funding,” said Herndon.