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Pandemic, budget crisis combine to leave eastern NC school district reeling

[1]
Wayne County School Board, during a virtual meeting

Schools in Wayne County were already struggling before COVID-19

When Wayne County Public Schools reopened in August for a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning, Fran Smith, an officer in the local branch of the NAACP, began to receive daily calls from teachers worried about their safety.

Two months earlier, the superintendent had resigned amid a damning financial audit and hard questions about a $5 million deficit. Now, the teachers told Smith, the school district had neither the leadership nor the resources to bring students and teachers back to classrooms for in-person instruction.

“They [teachers] told me that they were given a bucket, some dirty rags, one bottle of sanitizer and a mask, and that’s what they were supposed to use to clean their classrooms and keep their classrooms clean,” Smith said. “I’m sorry, that’s not how you deep clean.”

A record of mismanagement, debt and austerity

The district was on fiscal life support long before COVID-19 swept through the nation forcing schools and businesses to close. Over the past several years, it overspent its General Fund revenues by millions of dollars. But the pandemic has exacerbated the district’s financial troubles, prompting the board of education to lay off teachers, implement a hiring freeze and increase class sizes.

Smith and other local watchdogs believe the district’s financial crisis prevented it from adequately preparing to reopen schools safely. “They were supposed to purchase PPE; they were supposed to purchase Chromebooks, all these things were supposed to be purchased but how do you make these purchases without the funds to do it?”

However, budget documents show that the district received approximately $10 million in state and federal aid this year to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus. A little more than $6 million was parked in a category for “broad allowable use.” That means the money could be used for myriad purposes, including the purchase of sanitation and cleaning supplies for schools. Another $435,358 was earmarked for student computers and devices. Another $141,893 was set aside for home and community WiFi.

It is unclear why, despite the aid package, the school district is still not meeting the needs of students and teachers.

District Finance Officer Michael Hayes resigned in late May and wasn’t around in June to answer questions about the $5 million budget deficit that had accumulated before the pandemic. Superintendent Michael Dunsmore followed Hayes out the door a week later, leaving district to its own devices to resolve severe financial problems created by a pattern of mismanagement and questionable expenses that will likely haunt the district and its students for years.

[2]
The Wayne County School District closed Brogden Primary School for two weeks after seven teachers and a custodian tested positive for the virus. (Photo: WCSD)

Rives and Associates, the district’s auditor, found that the Wayne County Board of Education violated state law during the previous year when it reported expenditures that exceeded the amounts appropriated in the budget ordinance: $97,528 for instructional services and $394,992 for system-wide support services. It also violated state law by overspending by $456,550 the amount appropriated in the Capital Outlay Fund for debt service.

To sort out the mess, the school board quickly hired Jim Merrill, a former Wake County Public School System superintendent, along with School Operations Specialists, an independent consulting firm led by veteran school finance officer Aaron Beaulieu.

School started in August, but only last week did the school board approve an austere $187.5 million spending plan — replete with enormous budget cuts to offset the deficit. These include a $1 million reduction in the central office budget, as well as cuts to administrative travel, training and supplies.

The school also owes $5 million in loans from the state and the district’s School Nutrition Fund. The loans were supposed to help the district meet payroll, including the final installment of teacher supplements for the 2019-20 school year.

“You started with a negative $3.8 million fund balance; you owe child nutrition $3 million; you owe the state over $2.1 million,” Beaulieu told the school board last week. “You have no room to go into the red any further.”

Just repaying the loan from the School Nutrition Fund will cost $300,000 a year over the next 10 years, Beaulieu said.

Wayne County schools is the 21st-largest of the state’s 115 districts. Nonetheless, it hoped to eliminate 50 teaching positions by increasing class sizes in grades 4-12. Average class size increased from 26 to 30 students in grades 4-8. Meanwhile, average class sizes in grades 9-12 increased to 25 students. These larger class sizes will also make social distancing more difficult for in-person learning.

But even with that consolidation, the district managed to cut only 32 positions. It found that the others were necessary.

[3]
Former Wake County Public Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill is trying to sort out the financial mess in the Wayne County school system.

A hiring freeze has been implemented. Teaching assistant positions will be eliminated as they become vacant. And 110 first-and second-year teachers will not receive contract renewals at the end of the current school year— representing nearly 15% of the district’s nearly 740 full-time teachers.

Struggling to deal with the pandemic

Smith of the NAACP criticized the cuts. District leaders should be providing students and teachers with more resources to cope with the impacts of COVID-19 instead of asking them to do more with less, she said.

“This is the way it always ends up, with the people on the lowest end of the totem pole being the ones who suffer,” Smith said. “They’re not the ones responsible for the mismanagement of the funds. The ones responsible are the ones in management in that administration.”

All school districts have received state and federal money to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But teachers and parents still complain that the district doesn’t have adequate PPE or the devices needed for students to connect to remote learning.

Mark Colebrook, a former WCPS teacher who left the district a little more than a week ago to work for one of the county’s charter schools, was among the chorus of teachers who warned over the summer that the school system was not ready to reopen for in-person instruction.

“It was just a mess, financially with the budget and the district’s handling of the pandemic, having teachers go back [for in person instruction],” Colebrook said, explaining why he went to work for a charter school. “I just didn’t want to put my life in their hands.”

Colebrook’s fears and those of other district teachers who lobbied the Wayne County Board of Education to reopen under the state’s Plan C, which features remote-learning only, were validated last week when the district closed Brogden Primary School for two weeks after seven teachers and a custodian tested positive for the virus.

More than 70 district employees have recorded positive tests since Aug. 18, according to data provided by the district. A public school custodian and a teacher’s assistant died over the summer after contracting the virus, but their deaths haven’t been definitely linked to their jobs with the school district.

[4]Wayne County is also home to the largest coronavirus school cluster in the state. A private school, Wayne Christian School, has recorded 40 cases — six staff members and 34 students.

After the outbreak at Brogden, Tiffany Kilgore, president of the Wayne County Association of Educators (WCAE), renewed teachers’ demand to move all schools to remote learning. She also wants the district to test all school employees for the virus.

“We all can agree, simple basic fact, that children do better with face-to-face learning,” Kilgore told Policy Watch. “But what it comes down to is one simple thing; what is safest? When we decided to open schools for in-person instruction, we didn’t put the well-being of students and teachers in the forefront.”

Colebrook taught at Brogden until his recent resignation. The school has always been under-resourced, he said, but conditions have worsened as a result of the pandemic and the financial crisis.

“As a teacher you go in understanding that you’re going to have to spend money on some things,” Colebrook said “Now, they don’t have enough cleaning supplies. So, in addition to what teachers were already buying, they’re buying cleaning supplies to make sure their classrooms are clean.”

To ensure teachers had enough supplies, WCAE asked for donations of cleaning rags, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. The United Way of Wayne County and the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce responded and jointly sponsored a cleaning supply drive.

Exposing a digital divide

Colebrook said the pandemic also exposed a wide digital divide in Wayne County. He partnered with local businesses and agencies to launch a campaign to raise money to purchase electronic devices for students who had not received them from the district.

“We have all of these kids who are either hybrid of virtual [learning] and they needed a Chromebook,” Colebrook said. “Every kid doesn’t have a Chromebook and they’re having to share one in a family of three or four or even five [children].”

School board member Len Henderson confirmed that the district continues to have a shortage of Chromebooks and “hot spots” students need to access remote learning in the largely rural county in eastern North Carolina where Goldsboro serves as the county seat.

[5]
Mark Colebrook left Wayne County schools about a week ago for a job at a charter school. He warned that the school system was not ready to reopen for in-person instruction.

Some district critics say more than 60 students are still without Chromebooks two months into the new school year.

Henderson couldn’t confirm that number. “I can’t give you any accurate data on that,” he said. “We have not been able to ascertain that as a board at this particular time. I do know that we are trying our best to try to accommodate the individuals as much as possible.”

School board Chairman Don West spoke briefly with Policy Watch last week but declined to answer questions about the district’s finances or to address teachers’ concerns about returning to classrooms for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, Colebrook believes the school year will be a lost one for many Wayne County students because the adults in charge failed to take care of district finances.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re trying to deal with not only the pandemic but an epidemic of financial malpractice” — one with potentially lifelong consequences for students, Colebrook said.

“Kids are already experiencing a learning deficit because of the time we’ve been out of school,” Colebrook said. “From an academic standpoint, it’s going to be a wasted year. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for how we’re going to get these students back on track.”