Hundreds of Moore County Schools parents, teachers and staff packed the auditorium of Carthage Elementary School on Monday night to support a proposed increase in the district’s 2020-2021 local budget.
Under the budget that Superintendent Bob Grimesey unveiled to the school board last week, supporting staff from bus drivers to data managers are in line to receive pay raises for the first time in years.
Many of those “classified” staff members were among the 32 speakers who addressed the school board in a 90-minute public hearing. Others were parents of third-graders facing the prospect of their children’s class sizes doubling when they enter fourth grade.
Those parents urged the board to consider asking for more than the $3 million increase in county funding factored into the budget proposal.
The $35.6 million request proposed is based on a policy the county commissioners adopted in 2016 to allocate 40 percent of Moore County’s annual property revenue to the school system. The county funding makes up a portion of the total $132 million total budget for 2020-2021.
“I understand the desire of the proposed budget to stay within the 40 percent pledged by our county commissioners back in 2016,” said Emily Richeson, a parent of children at Pinehurst Elementary and West Pine Middle. “However, in doing so I think this budget fails our students and our staff.”
Pinehurst Elementary currently enrolls about 100 fourth-grade students, Richeson said. Based on that school’s current staffing, those students will likely have to fit into three fifth-grade classes next year.
A $3 million increase in local funding next year will cover a new pay scale for classified staff designed to bring those employees’ pay into parity with what they would make working in similar jobs for other government entities, including Moore County. That group includes custodians, mechanics, resource officers, maintenance workers, bus drivers, data managers and bookkeepers.
Implementing a scale that includes pay increases based on employee longevity with Moore County Schools will cost the district about $850,000 each year. The board requested funding for that in its budget proposal last year, which was not ultimately not funded in the final approved budget. “The school system told us the county didn’t give the money to fund the proposal,” said Kimberly Smith, Moore County Schools payroll manager. “The county said they gave the money, but the school system chose to spend it in other ways. Whatever the case, classified staff were caught in the middle and left with nothing.”
Bus drivers, data managers and HVAC technicians alike said that they remain with the school system because of loyalty to their school and its students, even though they could likely earn a greater paycheck elsewhere. Those staff members represented groups of co-workers who stood as they spoke.
“I’ve seen a lot of skilled people leave the system,” said Clayton Burns from the schools’ maintenance department. “These are the people that you can’t replace overnight. While some of them have retired, a lot of them just left because they saw no chance for advancement, and they saw no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ricky Seawell, a custodian at Highfalls, said that he usually makes enough in three weeks working independently during the summer to cover his two-month pay gap.
“If somebody’s nose bleeds, gets a cut, we’re the ones who have to take care of the blood-borne pathogens that might be in there,” he said. “When you think about that, think about where you’re sitting and see if you would want to do that job for what you pay us.”
Parents also supported the board’s placement of the new pay scale at the top of its priorities, as did teachers, who would not benefit from it.
Leona Payne, PTO president at Carthage Elementary, pointed out that the day-to-day maintenance of some of the district’s older buildings can be a demanding job.
“They do an incredible job keeping an aging school functioning,” she said. “We have several buildings on this campus that were built in several different decades, they are made from different materials, and they each have different maintenance needs. Our staff keeps everything going, and they have done it while being paid far less than they should.”
The proposed $3 million budget increase would also cover seven additional teachers for kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. The schools anticipate they’ll need those teachers to conform with stricter limits on class sizes in those grades next year.
It also adds more money for charter schools as their enrollment grows by a projected 150 students, and funding to increase teachers’ salaries in line with state levels.
It includes two teachers for grades four and up: one to head an orchestra program at North Moore High, and one on the fourth- or fifth-grade level.
As schools have moved teaching positions to K-3 classrooms to comply with tightening state limits on class size, older students have felt the effects. New state funding will help the schools cover six of the 13 K-3 positions it’s planning to add next year, but the district has had to move teaching positions from higher grades to reach full compliance over the last few years.
Currently, about a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade classes throughout the district have more than 30 students each.
An additional seven fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, at $490,000, falls just outside the list of priorities that the proposed budget would fund. That’s something that a handful of parents who spoke on Monday encouraged the board to ask for additional funding to address.
“If there is a clear, identified need to add eight grade four and five teachers, why does the proposed budget include funding for only one for the entire district?” said Renee Coleman, the PTA treasurer at Pinehurst Elementary. “This is not OK with me, and it’s not OK for many other parents. If ultimately we unfortunately do end up putting our children in classrooms with 30-plus students, please don’t let it be because we didn’t ask for the money.”
Several parents pointed out that small classes are linked to environments that engage diverse groups of students, and with high performance on make-or-break tests at the end of each year. Students aren’t the only ones affected by class sizes much higher than ideal, and some were concerned that prospective teachers will be turned off by a system with too many of them.
Lynn Antil, who has children at West Pine Elementary currently, said that her oldest now attends private school after suffering a decline in educational quality from third grade to fourth.
“I realized her teacher didn’t know her, and didn’t know that the child who used to love school no longer did,” Antil said. “It’s not the teacher’s fault. I never blamed her. She had 27 other kids in her class who required much more of her attention than my child.”
“The students aren’t the only ones who suffer. As we know, teachers don’t go into that profession for the money; they love kids and they want to teach and inspire them. But it’s pretty difficult to do so when you’ve got more than 30 students in your class.”
Jenny Mabry, a West End parent and local pediatrician, said that small classes allow students with various degrees of aptitude for learning – whether they have a mild disability or they’re performing well above grade level – to thrive in the same room with a single teacher.
“By saving the money for funding fourth grade teaching positions, I think that the budget is going to have to increase for (special needs) services,” she said. “I think that should be a consideration when deciding about hiring fourth- and fifth-grade teachers.”
Tessa Davis, PTO treasurer at Carthage Elementary, was more blunt. At Carthage, next year’s fifth-grade class is expected to be larger than the current one. While North Carolina could allocate more teachers to the district based on enrollment increases if there’s a significant jump countywide, those formulas don’t account for fluctuations at individual schools.
“I’d like to see any one of you go to a fifth-grade classroom here and shove seven more chairs and desks where we already have 33 students,” Davis told the school board. “A 40-person classroom is not acceptable. It is not a quality education.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem in our county that we have to choose between class sizes, additional nurses and counselors, and paying for our classified staff. We’re Moore County. We’re supposed to be one of the best counties in the state, but clearly if you look at our SAT, ACT scores and other things, we’re not.”
The Moore County Board of Education will consider adopting a budget for the 2020-2021 school year in April, before presenting a request to the county commissioners.
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.