By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
Harnett County Schools decided to use some of its COVID-19 money on teacher retention amidst a national labor shortage.
Sitting on a pile of taxpayer dollars from American Rescue Plan Act funding, HCS administrators originally planned to dedicate a large slice of it towards long overdue and much-needed construction projects. When neighboring school districts started applying the money to keeping and hiring teachers, HCS elected to do the same.
HCS Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Monica Thompson on Monday presented a retention bonus program to the Board of Education for all staff that could reach as much as $5,000 for qualified longtime employees.
“We’re working to retain employees here in Harnett County,” Thompson said. “This is a retention bonus and is intended to reward those employees who remain employed with Harnett County schools for the 2021-22 school year. Many of the surrounding districts in this area are offering this same type of bonus. We’re trying to remain competitive and not lose our staff members to surrounding districts.”
Administrators based the bonus on years of employment as certified staff with 25 years or more eligible for the full $5,000. Classified staff received a $1,000 bonus from county commissioners earlier in the year and are maxed out at $4,000 from HCS.
Anyone who resigns or retires prior to Feb. 1, 2022, will not get any money. Eligible staff who received the bonus and leave after Feb. 1 but before June 10, the end of the 2021-22 calendar, have to pay back a prorated amount of the bonus. Staff hired through outside agencies also are not eligible.
“Hopefully, folks will stay until the end of the year,” said Thompson. “By its nature, we want to make it a retention bonus. Private employees who meet all criteria and are actively working through the 2021-22 school year are eligible to receive the bonus. We wanted to give an equal amount. Nobody will receive more than $5,000.”
For employees thinking of retiring at the end of 2021, HCS Superintendent Aaron Fleming hopes the bonus entices them to finish out the school year, especially in a tight labor market.
“If someone was going to retire in December, because we’re having staffing issues across the whole state, and the country for that matter, that’s why we’re asking people if you hit 30 years in December, stick with us six more months,” Fleming said. “You get this money and you still get to retire. At 30 years, you’re going to get $5,000. I don’t know if that would change your mind.”
HCS pivoted from its preliminary spending plans after noticing a growing trend among school districts, including those in neighboring areas. With talent at a premium, Fleming credited HCS staff with recognizing the labor dilemma and figuring out ways to address it.
“I think our staff, our leadership was very proactive,” said Fleming. “When we heard we were getting COVID relief funds, we prioritized that money toward building on to schools. By doing this, we’ve had to scale some of that back a bit. We’re still going to be able to do a bulk of what we wanted to do … but I think we were very proactive knowing a lot of school districts were not going to do as much capital as we were planning on doing. We didn’t realize we were entering an era of labor shortages. We had to step back a little bit and kind of look at this money again and how we can be competitive but still accomplish some of the things we want to accomplish in getting students out of huts and all that.”
Unlike the $500 HCS started giving to classified staff a few years ago, Fleming cautioned that the retention bonus, barring some unforeseen assistance from the federal government, is a one-time deal he doesn’t expect to continue. HCS still managed to set aside enough of the current COVID cash for capital projects.
“This is COVID relief funds and is not something we can do every year,” Fleming said. “This is a bonus. This is a quick way to spend the funds. We’ve had to cut back on [capital improvements] a little bit but I think the most important pieces of that project are still together. I think this is a very meaningful bonus.”
Thompson also released the findings of a classified salary adjustment study that showed a lot of employees are due for a raise. Based on the study, Thompson said roughly 30% of central office staff, 90% of clerical staff, 95% of teacher assistants and 75% of cafeteria and CNA workers are expected to receive a pay increase as determined by market value.
The HCS Board of Education is expected to approve the retention bonus next month.