The Wake County school system could use some of its $400 million in federal COVID relief funds to give raises to school employees.
Wake County, like other school systems around the country, is facing major staffing shortages for positions such as teachers, bus drivers, teacher assistants and cafeteria workers.
Even though the relief funds are one-time money, multiple Wake school board members said this week that the COVID dollars should be used to reward the district’s overworked and underpaid staff.
“We have the funding available,” school board member Christine Kushner said at this week’s budget committee meeting. “We have to be bold in supporting our staff right now.”
Wake opened the school year with nearly 1,000 vacant positions. The staffing problems have only intensified as time has gone on.
Shortage causing staff to do more
A shortage of bus drivers means it’s taking longer getting students to and from school. This also means school employees are staying longer on campus to supervise the students.
There are also not enough substitutes to fill all the teaching vacancies. It’s leading to teacher assistants covering classes and teachers giving up their planning period to catch classes. Teachers are working at home to get in the work they would have done during their planning period.
The large number of vacancies is a major reason why the school system canceled classes on Nov. 12 to turn it into a “day of reflection” for students and employees.
“People are doing a lot more and we’re not really compensating, and our salaries have been stagnant for a long time,” said school board member Jim Martin.
Martin urged his colleagues to consider using some of the COVID aid to compensate school employees. Wake school officials say they’ve only spent 25% of the $400 million in COVID aid they expect the district to receive.
Durham Public Schools plans to use some of its COVID dollars to give full-time employees a $1,000 bonus by Thanksgiving, The News & Observer previously reported.
Budget risk using COVID aid for raises
But Martin and some other Wake board members want to go a step further and use the COVID aid to provide raises, which would become a recurring expense. School administrators want to spread the money out over the next three years and use it more for one-time expenses instead of recurring expenses.
“It is a risk to say we’re going to change base pay today not knowing what’s happening five years from now,” said board member Monika Johnson-Hostler. “I know sitting in this seat I’m going to make a decision, if that’s the decision, for another board member who will then have to figure out how to maintain base pay if we make that change.
“Now if you ask me today, it’s a risk I’m willing to take because our workforce is exhausted.”
Johnson-Hostler and other board members pointed to the tight labor market as a reason to aggressively use the COVID money.
“We’re seeing staff leaving and we need to recognize that without staff and people in the building, we can’t continue to operate schools safely, so I think we need to look at addressing the people who are sticking with us,” said board vice chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey.
Teachers back using COVID money for raises
Based on the board interest, Superintendent Cathy Moore said administrators will come back with different options for using the COVID money for raises. .
“It is time for us as a nation, as a state and as a county to really, I think, invest in a substantive and meaningful way that has not happened in the last 10 years in our public schools, and I hope we’ll able to do that,” Moore told the board.
In September, administrators had said it would cost an additional $98 million a year in local funding to raise staff pay to a minimum of $17.33 an hour and address salary compression issues.
The idea of using COVID money on salaries was embraced by some educators.
“You might not be able to wave a wand and immediately fill the vacancies, but you can certainly choose to compensate them for their time and labor,” Kristin Beller, president of Wake NCAE, said during public comments at this week’s school board meeting.
Cecelia Joyce, a Wake County middle school teacher, told the board that employees deserve hazard pay working through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is an honor to work with students and our time and labor should be honored as professionals,” Joyce said. “The federal COVID funds would be put to great use towards this..”