Wake schools wants to raise salaries of lowest-paid workers. Will district get funds?

Ernestine Mbata, a Wake County school bus driver for the past 27 years, was one of many who attended a rally calling on the Wake County school board to increase pay and improve work conditions for many employees of the school system, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Wake County Superintendent Catty Moore will request an increase in local funding this year to raise school employee pay, including the minimum salaries for its lowest-paid workers.

Moore told the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Monday that she will recommend raising the $16 an hour minimum wage for hourly workers, which includes people such as teacher assistants and cafeteria workers. Raises will be proposed for other school employees as well during a time of high vacancy rates.

“We are really looking at improving employee compensation at all levels for all staff,” Moore said at the joint meeting of the school board and commissioners. “The focus does remain on our hourly staff, our lowest paid and hardest to fill positions.”

Moore will release her proposed school budget on April 11. County Manger David Ellis will present his recommended budget, including how much to give to the school system, on May 1.

Last year, commissioners provided a $50 million funding increase that helped raise the minimum school employee salary to $16 an hour. It could be difficult providing another large boost this year amid concerns about inflation and a potential recession hitting taxpayers.

In an interview Monday, Shinica Thomas, chair of the Board of Commissioners, said it’s too early in the budget process to say whether they’ll be able to fund the school board’s request. The school board will review Moore’s budget and vote May 2 on how much of an increase it wants from the commissioners.

“I don’t really know what our capacity is yet,” Thomas said. “I look forward to what the (county) manager has to say in his recommendations and what staff has to say as we continue to have these work sessions as we lead up to the budget and to the actual ask from the school board, because we also have not gotten that yet.”

Below a living wage

The Wake County school system has a $2.2 billion operating budget with the state providing about half of the funds. Commissioners provide 27% of the school budget at $594 million.

In North Carolina, the state funds the salaries of many, but not all, school employees. In addition to the locally funded positions, school districts use their county dollars to supplement state pay.

“State funding for compensation, which is the primary responsibility of our state, has not kept pace in any of the areas of staffing, whether it’s school administrators or teachers or support staff,” Moore said.

Supporters of the Leandro school funding plan say it would provide the money for employee pay raises if state lawmakers agreed to fund the court order.

But until then, Moore said local governments are forced to pick up the slack. For instance, Wake’s $16 an hour minimum salary is higher than the state’s $15 an hour minimum salary. But Moore said $16 an hour is still below a living wage in Wake County.

Wake is still struggling with high vacancy rates, including 32.3% for bus drivers, 10.6% for cafeteria workers and 6% for instructional assistants. While the teacher vacancy rate is 2.5%, Moore said that it still means they have nearly 300 openings.

“We talk to teachers and we know that more than compensation is part of the equation with regards to keeping our staff in schools and attracting staff, but it’s a part of the equation,” Moore said. “We have to work on all fronts to keep the staff that we have and recruit additional staff as needed.

More counselors sought

Another budget focus area for the school district is to hire more counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses to work with students.

Wake used pandemic relief funds to hire more student behavioral health staff. But the district says it doesn’t have enough behavioral health staff to meet student needs or to meet nationally recommended staffing ratios.

The school board recently approved a plan to use local funds to increase pay for social workers, teachers and other school employees who missed the 2013 state cutoff to get a higher salary for having an advanced degree.

Moore said she will request more resources for behavioral health support positions.

Fiscal transition cliff

One of the complaints from critics about increasing school funding is that the district still has unspent federal COVID relief aid.

Figures presented Monday show that the district has spent $344.2 million of the $475 million in federal COVID aid it has received. The district says it has plans to spend the remaining money by the end of the 2023-24 school year.

“We are on track for where we need to be,” Moore said of the relief aid spending.

Wake used $32 million of the one-time federal aid to pay for recurring expenses such as hiring behavioral health support positions, instructional support technicians and building-level substitute teachers. Wake also used the COVID aid to pay for maintenance and operations, custodial and utility costs.

School administrators say they want to transition funding for those resources from federal dollars to other funding sources over the next two fiscal years.