School districts prepare for another year of class size controversy

By: - July 6, 2017 1:45 pm
Image: Adobe Stock

When North Carolina legislators pushed through their $23 billion budget plan in June, it included one key, last-minute insertion in a separate technical corrections bill.

State lawmakers wrote that it’s their “intent” to use data collected this year from school districts to fund a new allotment for arts and physical education teachers beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.

Given the well-documented consternation this year over a public school funding crisis spurred by lawmakers’ demands that schools reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, it’s an important, albeit tentative, promise.

And not just for kindergarten through third grade, says Kerry Crutchfield, budget director for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, the fourth largest school district in the state.

For Crutchfield’s district, which serves roughly 53,000 students, the implications are enormous for all grades.

“It is a K-12 issue, and in our district, the 6-12 issue is larger than the K-5 issue,” Crutchfield told reporters in June.

Kerry Cructhfield

Today, with a budget approved that includes at least a temporary respite on the harshestimpacts of the state’s class size controversy, school districts across the state may still face packed classes in grades 4-12, the loss of planning periods for teachers or major job losses next year when more stringent class-size regulations are scheduled to take effect.

When it comes to the loss of planning periods, Crutchfield acknowledges that’s likely far-fetched, for purely practical reasons.

“We’re not going to have any high school teachers teach for us if they have to teach all day, every day,” he says.

But the shift of resources from later grades to early grades is practically a certainty without action from state lawmakers. Called to shrink K-3 class sizes already this year, Crutchfield points out his school district trimmed initial estimates of about 76 new teachers down to 52 by increasing class size in grades 4-12.

The district was fortunate this year, he adds. A pre-approved funding formula with county commissioners allowed the district to fund its need with an additional $3 million thanks to a boost in county revenues. But the 2018-2019 school year may be a struggle.

“We’re very hopeful that the promises the General Assembly made in their budget bill to provide separate funding for the elementary specialists will come through next year,” he adds. “If it doesn’t provide enough teachers, then we’ll be in trouble.”

North Carolina’s class-size problem is complicated, but its roots date back to a 1995 decision by the state legislature to merge teacher funding allotments which had previously been split into separate allocations for classroom teachers and “specialty” or “enhancement” teachers in the arts, music and P.E.

In the years since, dwindling state funding forced school districts across North Carolina to improvise, shifting classroom teacher resources to fund enhancement teachers.

That’s because school advocates say enhancement teachers provide academic benefits to students and respite for core subject teachers to plan during the day.

State Republicans’ directive to trim class sizes in grades K-3 beginning this year would have forced districts to nix enhancement teachers to clear funding and classroom space for the new K-3 teachers. Districts said they would also have to spend millions to expand their infrastructure.

Advocates estimated districts would have to lay off more than 5,000 teachers statewide to find the resources.

Under fire, Republicans countered that districts misused state funds and were deceptive when questioned by lawmakers, something Crutchfield dismissed as a misunderstanding this week.

The General Assembly “doesn’t understand the K-12 issue with class sizes and planning time,” he adds. “I would freely admit that we have been using teachers from the state allotment with the 4-12 issue. But we’re not using the allotment for anything other than classroom teachers.”

Yet with the passage of a measure this year intended to assuage the job losses, districts are now squaring up for a similar battle over class size funding next year.

Some are hoping lawmakers will act sooner rather than later, pointing out legislators will have to give districts’ direction before both chambers reconvene for their short session next spring.

Most districts begin budget talks in January, points out Linda Welborn, a Republican school board member in Guilford County Schools.

Linda Welborn

“If they don’t come back until May, we’ve got no clue,” says Welborn. “We have no idea.”

And Welborn says the problem in Guilford, much like Forsyth County and other districts statewide, encompasses kindergarten through 12th grade.

She says Guilford County high schools lost an average of three teachers this year to find new educators for K-3, forcing school leaders to shelve popular programs.

“It impacted, drastically, our high schools,” she says. “Parents were very upset.”

Additionally, she says school leaders in Guilford, like Forsyth, were frustrated by the legislative mandate because they were forced to pack students in grades 4-12 to find personnel for the earlier grades.

And the loss of enhancement teachers would have a tremendous impact on the daily schedule for elementary teachers.

“If we don’t have special or enhancement teachers, who’s going to watch those classes while the teachers are planning?” she says.

It’s unclear when state lawmakers will take up the issue.

The legislature is scheduled to return to Raleigh to consider veto overrides in August and new legislative maps in September, although they’re not expected to consider teacher allotments until after the state collects data from districts on their needs this fall.

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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.