Local school districts prepare for “enormous disruptions” as Senate refuses to ease class size requirements

By: - April 20, 2017 5:00 am

North Carolina’s largest public school system may be warning of “enormous disruptions” without speedy action from state lawmakers on a looming class size funding crisis, but key education leaders in Raleigh tell Policy Watch there’s little sign Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly will act soon.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s any movement planned,” says Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat who sits on the state Senate’s Rules and Operations Committee, a panel that includes some of the chamber’s most powerful lawmakers and sets the agenda for future committee talks.

McKissick said he met late last week with Sen. Bill Rabon, the eastern North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, but GOP leaders remain reticent to make any commitments regarding a legislative fix to the funding controversy, despite stiff warnings from district chiefs that thousands of teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy.

“It obviously needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed expeditiously,” said McKissick.

The latest alert came Tuesday from Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) Superintendent James Merrill, who offered several thorny options to Wake school board members for filling a projected $26 million budget gap caused by the state’s class size requirements.

Those options include student reassignments and, as expected, massive layoffs among arts, music and physical education teachers to make way for hundreds of new core subject teachers.

Another controversial option would pack K-3 students into classes with up to 40 students and two classroom teachers as WCPSS, like many districts across the state, struggles to balance the need for reduced class sizes with a lack of space.

“It’s at least a three-dimensional Gordian knot,” said Merrill.

One bipartisan-backed resolution to the class funding drama, House Bill 13, picked up unanimous approval from the state House in February, but today it’s mired in Rabon’s committee.

Committee members have been reluctant to make promises about pending legislation as state lawmakers work furiously to meet the legislature’s April 27 crossover deadline, the date by which bills must be approved by at least one full chamber to be considered further in the session.

Rabon’s office declined to provide any updates on the issue for Policy Watch Wednesday, despite repeated assertions from district leaders that time is growing short for school districts.

Superintendent James Merrill

With county governments needing to approve a local budget by the end of June, districts are already deep into the budgeting process.

Merrill said Tuesday that Wake County has been “dragging its feet” in committing to any of its prospective options, all of which are sure to spur controversy in the community, as local officials await any sign of a direction from the state legislature.

“We will wait as long as we can,” Merrill added. “But we’re running out of time.”

[easy-tweet tweet=”“We’re running out of time.””]

WCPSS spokesman Tim Simmons told Policy Watch there is no “drop dead deadline” for the school system, but he emphasized the district’s precarious position, particularly as it relates to year-round schools that will begin the new school year in about ten weeks.

Simmons added that the school board has set a deadline of May 15 to send its proposed budget to Wake County commissioners for action.

“Their hands are tied, they have to decide strategically now,” says McKissick. “We’re looking at April and the county commissioners’ budgets have to be adopted by June 30. It doesn’t leave them much time to respond to what we may do, and if we don’t move quickly, it’s really going to handicap their efforts.”

Policy Watch has reported extensively on the class size bickering since last November. School district leaders say a GOP-authored budget mandate that schools trim class sizes in grades K-3 beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year will have major consequences in North Carolina public school districts without additional state funding or staffing flexibility for district leaders.

The state’s funding dilemma is complicated, but school leaders say a loss of flexibility over average and maximum individual classroom sizes in grades K-3 would force districts to hire thousands more teachers in core subjects.

To make space, districts would likely need to jettison teachers in “specialty” subjects such as arts, music and physical education, positions once funded separately by the state but now lumped in one block funding category.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), an organization that lobbies for K-12 teachers at the legislature, estimated Wednesday that school districts would be forced to lay off about 5,500 “specialty” teachers in arts, music and physical education.

[easy-tweet tweet=”“It’s going to devastate rural school districts who have a very difficult time recruiting teachers””]

“It’s going to devastate rural school districts who have a very difficult time recruiting teachers to begin with,” said Jewell. “It is definitely not providing our students in North Carolina a world class public school system that is guaranteed by our constitution.”

Smaller classes would also prompt a need for new classroom space in many schools and districts, with school administrators complaining they would need to spend millions in local dollars to boost school infrastructure or refit mobile classroom units.

House Bill 13 offers a temporary respite on those directives, returning district flexibility over average and maximum individual class sizes in K-3, although public school advocates say a long-term plan for saving teaching positions will require a major boost in the state’s investment in schools. Today, North Carolina’s per-pupil spending ranks a humble 43rd in the nation.

This month, a Guilford County school leader told Policy Watch of the difficulty districts will face in hiring thousands of new teachers for core subjects, given the state’s well-documented dearth of qualified teaching applicants.

In Wake County, meanwhile, Merrill said the urgent call for new core teachers could drive systems to depend on teachers with provisional licenses and “sub-standard” applications.

Republican lawmakers who backed last year’s budget mandate initially characterized the clamor as an unintended consequence. However, some GOP lawmakers, including influential Wake County Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot, accuse districts of misusing funding allotments, although they have not presented any evidence of specific misdeeds.

Barefoot did not respond to Policy Watch requests for comment, but Jewell called that allegation “simply incorrect” this week, arguing K-12 funding cuts in recent years left districts unable to fill in funding gaps to preserve teaching positions for specialty educators.

“It is the state’s responsibility to fund teaching positions and they’re falling short on that,” Jewell added.

McKissick said he believes the Senate will take some form of action on the issue this session, although it may not be the salve offered by House lawmakers.

Indeed, one Senate bill filed this session would offer a one-year respite on slashing class sizes, although districts would likely be facing a similar crunch next year.

Meanwhile, Wake school board members this week slammed state lawmakers for the brouhaha. Board members said the loss of class size flexibility revokes power best left to local school administrators.

“To take that flexibility away from the site-based administrators and to invest that on Jones Street is bad policy,” said board member Bill Fletcher, a former Republican nominee for state superintendent. “Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, it’s bad policy.”

Board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the stiffest impacts will be felt by North Carolina teachers, educators who she described as already overworked.

Specialty teachers provide some means of easing that workload, Johnson-Hostler added, pointing out she recently watched one overburdened Wake County teacher attempting to eat while walking to her next classroom.

“You cut out specialty teachers, I’m not sure they’d be able to walk anywhere and eat.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.