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RSS says federal money won’t be long-term solution for staff pay

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools has received an unprecedented amount of federal money in the past year, but the funding will only go so far to get the district’s staff pay to be competitive.

All told, the district has raked in $96.9 million in federal money. The amount is split between about $70.6 million in COVID-19 relief and a $26.3 million federal grant it was awarded in 2020 to advance renewal plans.

The district has some of the least-competitive pay for its employees when put up against comparable school districts. In June, Superintendent Tony Watlington broke down where the district lands. Teachers, teacher assistants, custodians and bus drivers all rank toward the bottom of lists of eight or nine districts.

Employees are broadly broken up into certified and classified categories. Certified employees include faculty such as teachers and principals. Classified employees include bus drivers, nutrition workers, maintenance and teacher assistants.

During last week’s school board meeting, Watlington revisited the issue briefly, noting the district is not only behind wealthier surrounding districts on 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 with Davidson County starts at $16.07 per hour. A pay study for classified staff is underway.

RSS Chief Finance Officer Carol Herndon said it is rare to see a pay study return with results showing pay should be flat. It is likely the district will have to phase in implementation of the study rather than put its recommendations in place in a single year, Herndon said.

Chief Operational Officer Anthony Vann said the district is having difficulty recruiting and retaining classified positions that fall under his umbrella. He said there are several reasons. Pay is one. Another is high competition with private businesses and other school districts for people with the skills RSS is looking for. The COVID-19 pandemic also contributes.

While need fluctuates, Vann gave the example of about 50 vacancies in a staff of 200 nutrition workers. Central office nutrition staff and other RSS employees have been working cafeteria lines in schools, not unlike staff who have been filling in as substitute teachers to fill elevated teacher absences.

Vann said he has lost several very skilled employees to surrounding counties and he sees businesses in town offering signing bonuses.

“It makes it difficult to retain quality staff unless you can compete with that,” Vann said.

Where the district will find the funding to increase pay is still an open question, but there are some possibilities.

Why not the federal money?

Some federal relief money will find its way into the pockets of faculty and staff, but it will not give the district a solution to long-term funding goals for the people that work there for two reasons: large parts of the funding can not broadly be used to pay staff and money also will run out.

The relief money is split into three parts because of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The district received $4.7 million in the early days of the pandemic from the CARES act, which has already been spent. The remaining federal relief came in two installments, $20.3 million package during the final months of the President Trump administration and $45.6 million as part of the American Rescue Plan passed this year.

All three of the relief packages came with slightly different rules attached. The final two packages, which make up the vast majority of the funding, have not been spent. Uses of the latter packages have to pass a three-prong test to either prevent, reduce or respond to COVID-19.

Currently, the district is looking to shift some of its funding to pay stipends to staff who are taking on extra duties due to COVID-19, but the state has consistently denied districts requesting to broadly pay salaries or bonuses with the money. Meanwhile, the $20.3 million must be spent by the end of September 2023, and the $45.6 million must be spent by the following year.

Herndon said it is dangerous to attempt to fund permanent bonuses with fleeting money because the district would not be able to sustain the increases after allotments expire.

“Our goal is to find sustainable funding,” Herndon said, adding the district is in the middle of putting a price tag on implementing the pay study.

The district will spend more than $30 million of its relief money to repair and upgrade HVAC systems in its schools. That will accomplish a long-term capital goal by taking that piece of funding off the top of the more than $200 million list of capital needs at district facilities. 

These expenses are allowed because they improve the air quality in the buildings. When all work is done, every school in the district will have HVAC systems with fresh air exchangers.

The $26.3 million grant is different. Its explicit purpose is to incentivize teachers in the name of advancing the district’s work on its special renewal status.

Earlier this year, the district announced its first incentive program through the grant, allocating $585,000 for signing and retention bonuses at 13 schools. District leadership has discussed creating incentive pay at its most needy schools with the grant as a means to attract teachers as well.

Where can the district find money?

North Carolina is one of only a handful of states that leaves the funding of its public schools at the total mercy of the state and local county governments.

School systems in N.C. have no authority to levy taxes or raise revenue of its own accord other than through grant awards 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 money awarded to it directly by those entities.

Most of the money comes from the state. One possibility is for the state to pass one of the proposed budgets currently circulating the legislature. The budget could include either $13 or $15 minimum wages for state employees, with state government covering the state-funded share of the increase. But a legislature-passed budget, which could come at the end of this month, would apply statewide, too.

The second place to find funding is from the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. This year, commissioners cut almost $500,000 from the current expenses appropriation for the district while the local part of salary and benefit expenses increased by $416,000. Local funding totals $38.8 million.

“One of the things our county has to sell to businesses and potential citizens is high-quality schools,” Herndon said, adding that requires high quality staff and competitive wages.

Herndon said RSS should meet with the commissioners in person to have a conversation so the county officials can understand the needs of the district. Letters sent to county officials each year can lack the emotion and passion behind the district’s work. 

The district has presented to the commissioners in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated that meeting.

The county also provides almost all capital funding for the district. There could be some small purchases of equipment like a piece of furniture, but local money is used to build schools.

The last option to find money would be to exercise some financial discretion. Renewal gives the district more financial flexibility with state funding than the average district, which makes it easier to look at what the district is spending.

Herndon gave the example of purchasing curriculum materials and analyzing if that product is giving the district what it wants. If not, RSS could look at competing products or free up that money to go to other initiatives.

“If we are serious about offering competitive wages to our staff, we have to look very deeply at what we are currently funding,” Herndon said.

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