NC school districts use federal COVID-19 education relief funds for bonuses

School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

RALEIGH — Some North Carolina school boards have announced they will use federal COVID-19 relief funds to give bonuses to educators.

The Randolph Record reported that the Randolph County Public School System will pay every employee a $5,000 bonus, according to a resolution adopted by the school board on Oct. 25. The resolution described the bonuses as “retention” and “premium pay.”

According to the American Rescue Plan’s  ESSER “FAQ,”  a district can use ESSER funds to provide “premium pay” or other additional compensation for teachers, principals, and other school personnel, including school nutrition staff and custodians.

Federal ESSER funds are appropriated by the General Assembly to the districts, but then the funds are typically handled by county managers.

Jamey Falkenbury, the director of government and community affairs for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, confirmed to North State Journal that federal Elementary and Secondary Education Relief Funds known as ESSER funds, can be used specifically for “recruitment and retention” bonuses.

“It is permissible, by the Department of Education, for locals to use their ESSER funds on recruitment and retention bonuses for teachers and/or school support staff,” Falkenbury said.

The bonuses have to be given to all employees and can’t just target a specific grade-level or type of teacher.

The ESSER funds can last up upwards of seven or eight years if the money is encumbered per the district’s ESSER plan.

The idea of stretching out the long-term spending of ESSER funds is highlighted by a four-year monitoring scheme posted under the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s ESSER informational webpage.

The state’s largest district, Wake County, is also considering using federal relief dollars to augment teacher pay. At its next board meeting on Nov. 16, Wake County Public Schools will consider a $3,750 bonus for employees to be paid in three $1,250 installments and an increase in pay rates for substitutes. The board previously discussed a raising starting pay to $13 per hour.

Wake County has recently been dealing with bus driver sick-outs, which have forced parents to provide transportation. The bus drivers say they want more pay and they are stressed out over routes they drive being lengthened due to too few drivers.

Falkenbury mentioned Wake County’s plan as a good one to look at since the district seems to have plotted out the use of its funds as far out as four to five years.

The conservative John Locke Foundation reported in July that nearly 90% of the roughly $6 billion in COVID relief funds remained still unspent by North Carolina school districts.

A number of other districts are also deciding to use federal relief funds for retention bonuses.

Alamance County schools are giving full and part-time employees a $3,000 bonus, while Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools employees will get a $1,400 bonus. Substitutes will get a $500 bonus if they work at least 20 days before Nov. 30.

Brunswick County will give out $1,500 bonuses to employees.

Using COVID relief funds, the Davie County school board will give all employees a $1,000 retention bonus that will be divided in two $500 payouts. That board also voted to raise the minimum bus driver wage to $15 an hour as well as giving bus drivers a 2% raise.

One of the largest bonuses so far has been Guilford County Schools July $20,000 signing bonus for newly hired teachers. That district has indicated in its ESSER plan that it will allocate $32.8 million for recruitment and retention purposes.

Johnston County has approved a $2,500 bonus for teachers and staff hired before 2021 and a $1,250 bonus for those hired after March 1, 2021. The bonuses will be paid out in two installments in December and June.

Mooresville Graded School District employees will see a $3,000 bonus.

Rockingham County Schools is paying out a $4,000 bonus in two installments, one paid out this year and one next year.

Winston Salem/Forsyth schools approved $1,000 in October for all staff. The board also approved payments of $700 for teachers and $500 to all other employees for both December of this year and May of 2021.

About A.P. Dillon 533 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_