A crowded classroom at Pinehurst Elementary.

A crowded classroom at Pinehurst Elementary. A new school is being built on the existing Dundee Road campus. (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

Between a dozen new teachers and raises for custodians and cafeteria workers, the school board’s first overview of what it might ask the county to fund next year bore some resemblance to last year’s priority list.

During the board’s work session Monday, Superintendent Bob Grimesey presented about $1.9 million in new costs expected for next year that he says are non-negotiable. Many of those costs are based on influences beyond the district’s control, including changes in the state’s regulations on kindergarten through third-grade class sizes.

Next year, the state will enforce an average class size of 18 students in those grade levels, down from 19 this year. Those rules also come with hard caps on the number of students in any individual class.

School staff estimate that compliance with that law next year will require 13 additional teachers. Of those, seven can be funded using state money freed up as the state introduces additional funding for "program enhancement," or arts, PE, and language teachers. 

That will leave the school board to use local funds to pay for the other six. This year already, the district has pulled teachers from other grades to meet the state class-size mandates and, consequently, seen class sizes for older students ballooning, especially in grades four through eight.

Classes of more than 35 students can now be found at Southern, West Pine and Crains Creek middle schools. Some fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at Carthage, Pinehurst, West End and Vass-Lakeview number more than 30 students.

On Monday, members of the district’s teacher advisory council told board members that classes that large aren’t ideal for children.

“In a time when we’re trying to really establish strong relationships with our kids, this is going in the wrong direction with some of our older elementary, middle and high school kids,” said Meg DeMolet, a kindergarten teacher at Pinehurst Elementary.

“Our students are coming into those classrooms,” she said, “it’s very full, they’re trying to do interactive, fun, project-type learning and it’s tough … our joy that we’re reducing (class sizes) has come at a very important cost to our older grades.”

The school board would like to bring those numbers down next year by adding four new teachers in the older elementary and middle school grades.

District staff also anticipate spending about $1 million in total to keep up with increases in the state’s standard salary for teachers and to keep Moore County Schools’ teacher pay competitive with other districts in North Carolina.

Though the state pays to increase teachers’ salaries year over year, that funding only applies to teachers the state pays for. In Moore County, about 75 teachers are paid from local funds, so the district ends up spending more of its local funds based on state-set salary changes.

Between increases in salaries and state employee benefits, it now costs the schools about $60,000 to employ a classroom teacher, about $10,000 more than 10 years ago.

Even though Moore County Schools receives about $10 million more from the state than it did in 2009, that funds about 50 fewer employees in a district that now enrolls about 600 more students.

Rising charter school enrollment also brings a hefty bill for the school system each year. Moore County Schools acts as a flow-through for county money that public charter schools are entitled to receive. This year, $2.25 million of the district’s local funding is going to charter schools for the 980 students from Moore County attending them.

Next year, that’s expected to increase to $2.7 million for 1,130 students, in part because Moore Montessori Community School in Southern Pines will add another grade level.

The district would also like to see local funding increase to pay for more of the school staff that serve students outside the classroom: nurses, psychologists, social workers, counselors and resource officers. As it stands, nurses and social workers sometimes split their time between two or three schools. That leaves other school staff picking up the slack when those professionals aren’t available.

To reach the ideal staffing levels recommended by the state and the National Association of School Psychologists, Moore County Schools would have to add a total of 45 of those professionals to its local payrolls.

“Each year I’ve noticed students are coming into us with more social and emotional needs that we didn’t have years ago, and those students would really benefit from those mental health professionals,” Nicki Bauer, who teaches kindergarten at Southern Pines Primary, told the board.

But some of the money the schools are using to pay for the support staff it has now will run out in the next year if its funding model doesn’t change. For the last two years, the district has drawn down its account of federal payments for health-related services provided to Medicaid eligible students, using about $1 million to pay for nine nurses, a counselor and a psychologist this year as well as contracted services for special needs students.

The schools receive only about $500,000 annually in Medicaid reimbursements, so that account will be in the red for 2020-2021 if that pattern continues. So the schools may propose an additional $237,500 in new funding just to pay for a few of its existing nurses and counselors.

“I appreciate the fact that we’re looking ahead and we’re not requesting another social worker, another psychologist for next year,” said board Chairwoman Libby Carter. “But it really concerns me that we are having to push it on down the road because we seem to do that routinely and then we never take a step forward.”

The school board may also reiterate another unfulfilled request from last year, to implement salary increases for “classified” staff, a group that includes custodians, bus drivers and mechanics, maintenance and cafeteria workers. That, and introducing a “step” schedule indexing employee pay to experience and number of years with the school system, would cost the district about $850,000 annually.

That system was designed a year ago, with advice from the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, to bring the school district’s pay in line with similar positions on the county or state level. Most of these employees make $2 to $4 less than the $15 starting salary they might make if they did the same job for the state.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree with these requests for more teachers and support staff to help our students in all grades achieve at their full potential,” Carter said. “Now it will be our job to convince the county commissioners that classes for 35 or 36 are not acceptable, and that underpaid custodians and bus drivers are able to find better-paying jobs elsewhere.”

Rachel Chandler, the data manager at Southern Pines Elementary, said that she and many other school staff members work second jobs to make ends meet on top of wearing multiple hats during the school day.

“I’m also the receptionist, the secretary, the support staff advisory representative, two and a half days a week I’m the nurse,” she said.

“I love my job. This is not a complaint about my job duties or responsibilities. I take extra things on with no hesitation. This is in no way a complaint. What I’m asking is that we make a livable wage that we don’t have to struggle or sacrifice our family time for.”

(2) comments

Kent Misegades

There is no factual evidence that smaller class sizes lead to better academic outcomes. This is mostly an urban legend spread by teacher unions like the NCAE (a mouthpiece for the far left NEA based in far left San Francisco) in order to increase membership and indirectly reward their friends in the government school industry, ie architects, builders, food service, etc. Charter and private schools are free to choose what they deem is an appropriate class size, and these schools far outshine government schools. When children are focused on learning and teachers are not disturbed by discipline issues or political agendas, classes of 30 or more students are quite manageable. Kindergarten and 1st graders do need an assistant.

Kent Misegades

According to MCS’ own statistics, some 40% of its employees are not full-time teachers. But they are paid well. Cut out all the fat and there is plenty of money. It ought to be possible to lower budgets and reduce our taxes. Last week I toured a charter school in eastern North Carolina. They have four Kindergarten classes with 30 students in each class led by a teacher and a teacher assistant. We observed them reading and doing math. No discipline issues. All working diligently. The school is operated at half the cost of MCS schools and its building costs are a fraction of what we’re spending on new government schools in Moore County.

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