By Heather Smith Craig
The Nov. 18 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting began with a moving tribute to Lynn Lehmann, who was described as a warm, busy and tireless community member who greatly supported the Phoenix School students.
Dale Smith of the accounting firm Anderson, Smith and Wike, PLLC then presented a review of the district’s financial statements. He noted that the district had received the highest possible rating — “Unqualified Opinion” — on its yearly audit but cautioned that the district needs to continue to maintain a “reasonable” local cash balance due to potential emergency needs and delays in federal funding. Smith praised the board members for their good stewardship. “You all continue to do an excellent job of overseeing the finances of the district,” he said.
CHCCS Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Scott and Chief Human Resources Officer Erika Newkirk then described the district’s efforts to remedy the ongoing substitute teacher shortage. Ms. Newkirk reported that, since September, about 30% of the district’s substitute teacher needs have gone unfilled. These unfilled positions mean that teachers and administration are often stepping in to cover those classes, to the detriment of their planning time and other responsibilities.
The administration therefore proposed to increase the per diem rate for unlicensed substitute teachers from $90/day to $125/day. The recommendation is based on a comparison of the rates paid by neighboring school districts. For example, the Alamance-Burlington district pays unlicensed substitute teachers $130/day and the Orange County schools district pays $120/day. Newkirk noted that increasing the rate CHCCS pays to a bit above the Orange County living wage ($15.40/hour) is consistent with the values of the board and allows the district to remain competitive with surrounding districts.
Additionally, the administration proposed to implement a new orientation process for substitute teachers, because substitutes have reported feeling the need for more training before entering the classroom. The new orientation process is currently online and is used in many parts of the state. Ms. Newkirk said, “[It] will help our subs understand diversity, equity, learning styles, teaching strategies and classroom management, in addition to HR policies, FERPA, school safety and health information.” The cost of providing this orientation and training will be borne by the district.
Scott estimated the cost of the proposed increase in the daily rate for substitutes and for the online training to be $92,000 for 2021-2022. The board approved the pay increase for unlicensed substitutes, a smaller pay increase for licensed substitutes and the online training for new substitute teachers. The changes will take effect as of Nov. 15.
Dr. Hamlett reported that the district has had to face a number of unanticipated challenges, including contact tracing, the need to reconsider the calendar, staff shortages and the psychological toll returning to in-person learning has taken on students, teachers and staff.
In response to these challenges, Dr. Hamlett said, the district pursued and received a grant for in-school COVID testing and contact tracing and has modified the school calendar to provide additional vacation days, among other changes. Dr. Hamlett said, “Addressing ‘unfinished learning’ will be an ongoing process as we focus on closing opportunity and achievement gaps.”
Board member Mary Ann Wolf asked whether the administration has reached out to students who left the district, and whether certain schools have lost more students than others. CHCCS Chief of School Support and Wellness Dr. Charlos Banks replied that the school social workers have collected this information and are reaching out to those families. Board member Wolf also encouraged the administration to revisit homework levels as an aspect of social and emotional health.
Dr. Hamlett further reported that pandemic-related learning deficits are being addressed by school principals, who are seeking to address these academic needs during the school day rather than by assigning after-school work. She noted that community partners, volunteers and the Blue-Ribbon mentoring program are potential resources to assist in addressing students’ learning deficits.
Additionally, the board members discussed the district’s disproportionate identification of Black and Latino students as having intellectual and emotional disabilities and the district’s disproportionate use of suspension for Black students. Dr. Banks said that the district is on a N.C. Department of Instruction (DPI) warning list, and that the administration is working with the schools to promote equitable treatment of all students.
Board member Deon Temne asked about expanding the Alternative Learning Arrangement and Virtual Learning Academy. Dr. Hamlett replied that both programs are likely to be scaled back next year because the enrollment numbers are insufficient to garner a ‘school code’ from the state, though the administration will reapply. In addition, she noted that enrollment in the ALA program is likely to further decrease because, now that COVID vaccines have been approved for everyone aged 5 and up, many parents of students in the ALA program are ready for their children to return to in-person learning.
Dr. Hamlett noted that the new North Carolina budget, which became law Nov. 18, will “hold harmless” districts that have lower enrollments due to the pandemic. “[This] will prevent us from [losing] approximately $2.4 million,” Dr Hamlett said.
At the end of the meeting, the board said goodbye to retiring members Mary Ann Wolf and Lisa Kayleigh. New board members Mike Sharp, Riza Jenkins and George Griffin will be sworn in Dec. 2.