Featured photo: Activists gathered at the county jail in May 2021 to push for decreased funding for the sheriff’s department in an effort to increase funding for local schools. (photo by Andrew Garcia)

The Guilford County Board of Education and the County Commission once again appear to be at odds when it comes to funding.

In late April, Guilford County School Superintendent Sharon Contreras outlined her budget recommendation for 2021-22. She requested $35 million in additional funding from the county to help pay for an increase in teacher pay and a raise in school nutrition workers’ pay to $15 per hour. Included in the $35 million is a request for $10 million for capital outlay to fix and maintain school facilities.

However, during a May 20 county commission meeting, County Manager Michael Halford recommended a little over half of what Contreras had requested — a $13.4 million increase.

In response, local activist groups Guilford For All, the Guilford County Association of Educators and others called on the county commissioners to eliminate vacant positions within the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department to fully fund Contreras’ ask.

“There are some of us who are for taking $1.4 million from the sheriff’s department and the jail because of a commitment to bringing real safety like an increase in wages and making an economy where everyone can survive,” said Guilford For All member Casey Thomas. “And then there are others of us, who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves abolitionists but felt like it was common sense to them to pay the real people that are working and understanding that people deserve at least $15.”

But that’s not how the budget works, said County Commission Board Chair Skip Alston. He said that any vacancies that exist within county departments are taken into consideration when the manager makes his recommendation.

Skip Alston

“We have hundreds of vacancies right now in various departments, so we don’t budget for those positions to be filled,” Alston said, “but we budget for the fact that they have to be filled at some point.”

He also pointed out that because of the vacancies, many deputies have to work overtime, which ends up costing the county more because they are paid time and a half. As the longest-serving commissioner on the board, Alston said he is not in favor of reallocating funding from the sheriff’s department for the school board’s request. In fact, he said he’s not in support of defunding law enforcement at all.

“I am in favor of increasing funding because we need more experienced officers,” he said. “You get what you pay for. We need to increase pay for our deputy sheriffs, we need better quality of officers, we need more experienced officers and we need to increase the training of our officers…. So a lot more should be spent on law enforcement, not less.”

Alston pushed back on the notion that the school board is not getting enough funding by stating a point that County Manager Halford also noted during his presentation.

“This is the largest increase in funding that the county has given the school board in over 20 years,” Alston said. “We have a more friendly board towards schools than you had in the past when you had majority Republicans.”

Will a Democratic shift mean more funding for schools?

One of the biggest upsets in local elections last year took place on the county commission when three Democratic newcomers shifted the makeup from a 5-4 Republican majority to a 7-2 Democratic board. Many of the Democrats ran on campaign promises to increase funding for schools, something that the Republican-dominated board did not prioritize, according to activists.

Mary Beth Murphy, an 8th grade teacher and newly elected Democrat on the county commission, said that she wants there to be more funding for schools included in the final budget.

“I was hopeful that the manager’s proposal would have included more funding for schools,” she said. “My priority has been to secure adequate funding for our schools, and so I am working with my colleagues and the manager to find a way to do more and ensure we are truly investing in public education.”

James Upchurch, another one of the new Democrats on the board, said that he, too, wouldn’t support the budget as it currently stands but thinks it’s a good starting point.

“There’s a lot of things in the budget proposal that should make people hopeful about the direction of our county,” Upchurch wrote in a statement. “A large increase in education spending, funding to address the disparities in infant mortality, the creation of a public relations department, funding for an inclusion, equity and diversity director. Fifteen dollars per hour for par- time county staff for which there’s a full-time position, no tax increase. There’s still some work to be done. It’s not perfect in my opinion, but it’s the best budget proposal our county has had in many years.”

Upchurch also echoed Alston’s sentiment by stating that he wished there had been more collaboration between the county commissioners and the school board before Contreras had put out her budget request. Alston said that he wants there to be a collaborative budget committee made up of both county commissioners as well as school board members to talk about what can realistically be funded.

“Then we wouldn’t have this back and forth as it relates to what we can do and what we can’t do,” Alston said. “They would understand our budget and we would understand their needs.”

Who does the funding affect?

County Manager Halford recommended that $7.5 million of the $13.4 million that he suggested as additional funding for the schools be used for general operations and salary increases while $5 million could be used for teacher supplements. About $884,000 would be for capital outlay. According to Contreras’ budget presentation, Guilford County Schools lags behind in teacher supplements compared to other school districts in the state. Data shared during her April 20 school board presentation showed that Durham County saw an 8.6 percent increase in teacher supplemental pay from 2015-20 while Guilford County only saw 3.8 percent. Wake and Mecklenburg school districts had more than 27 percent increases while the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district saw a whopping 51 percent increase over the last six years.

However, the $5 million for teacher supplements suggested by Halford is only half of what Contreras asked for in her recommended budget.

In addition to supplemental teacher pay, the school board and activists are asking for bus drivers, nutrition workers and other school staff to make at least $15 an hour.

But according to Alston, an increase in bus driver pay to $15 an hour was already approved and fully funded back in 2019 and 2020.

“We funded it immediately,” Alston said. “My understanding is that they are getting $15 right now. If they’re not, I’m going to be very upset about that because I fought very hard on that.”

Even with bus driver pay increases, that leaves the issue of nutrition workers like Julia Oxendine and custodial staff like Curtis Pickard in a grey area if enough funding doesn’t make it into the final budget.

“I’ve struggled and worked two jobs in the past just to make sure that my bills are paid,” said Oxendine, who has worked in school nutrition for 19 years. “We’re asking you to find a way to make your budget support school nutrition. We’ve supported the children in Guilford County through this entire pandemic, and we’re asking that you do the same for us.”

Pickard, who has worked as a custodian for Guilford County Schools for 25 years, told the Guilford County Association of Educators that he barely made $30,000 a year.

“Our salaries haven’t moved in over 10 years,” he said. “Stop playing games with people’s lives…. We voted you in. You need to stand with us, not against us.”

In response, Alston said that the school board should be able to get creative with the federal funding they will be receiving to raise all staff members’ wages to $15 per hour at least for now.

“What we’re trying to do is buy time,” Alston said. “The county does not have money to send around. We are right in the middle of a pandemic. I will not be supportive in raising taxes to do this. We will have more funds possibly available in the next budget and the budget after that… So I would hope that the school board would look for temporary ways to fund the $15 per hour now and they can do that through bonuses using the federal funding.”

Activists gathered at the county jail in May 2021 to push for decreased funding for the sheriff’s department in an effort to increase funding for local schools. (photo by Andrew Garcia)

Activists like Thomas support the school board’s funding proposal because it includes the federal funding Alston mentioned but noted that the federal money is temporary and would run out after a few years if no permanent sources of funding replace it. That’s why part of what Guilford For All is pushing for is a 1-cent property tax increase.

“We understand that commissioners may be worried about what people think if they raise property taxes to raise the revenue to make this real long term, but that’s why we voted for them,” Thomas said. “That’s why we went door to door, so that they would be bold enough to raise the revenue and stop starving our schools…. It doesn’t fill me with pride to know that we’re paying people poverty wages that require them to work two to three jobs into their fifties and sixties, so what? I can save a buck fifty on taxes a month? It’s just ridiculous.”

In the end, Thomas said they don’t want to fight the county commission on this, they want to work together to better the schools.

“This is not an attack, but this is a push,” Thomas continued. “We will have their back if they do the right thing. They should definitely be funding the schools. This is why a lot of people came out to vote in droves for them. Ultimately, we want a Guilford County where everyone can have what they need to thrive.”

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners will be holding a public hearing about the budget on Thursday, June 3 at 301 W. Market St. The board will be voting on the final budget on June 17. To learn more about the proposed budget visit here.

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