Outgoing board members vote on crowded classes

Outgoing board members join unanimous vote on crowded classes

Staff WriterNovember 18, 2009 

— One of the final acts of four outgoing Wake County school board members was to request permission Tuesday for 66 elementary schools to exceed state class size limits in kindergarten through third grade.

The schools, representing nearly two-thirds of Wake's elementary schools, need state permission to continue to have more than 24 students in 329 kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Class sizes have risen as fewer teachers were hired because of a $3.2billion state revenue shortfall this year. Also, fewer electives and other courses are being offered this school year.

"We're not at a position we want to be in," Superintendent Del Burns said. "We wish classes weren't at this size. We're still dealing with the impact of the economy."

Administrators said most of the classes needing waivers have 25 or 26 students. But some classes are in the high 20s, and a few have more than 30 students.

Class sizes are even higher in many Wake upper elementary, middle and high school classrooms. But unlike the early elementary grades, those classes don't need waivers from the state.

To cope with state funding cuts, Burns told principals to fill only 95 percent of their positions this year, a move that contributed to nearly 1,500 school employees being dropped when their contracts expired in June.

Some people, including Gov. Bev Perdue, have said that Wake should have used more of its federal stimulus money to retain teachers and keep class sizes down.

The state can provide Wake more money, approve the waivers or reject them. If the waivers are denied, Wake would be forced to come up with the money to hire additional teachers to lower class sizes.

The requests for the waivers were unanimously approved by the board, including departing members Eleanor Goettee, Patti Head, Lori Millberg and Horace Tart. They'll be replaced Dec.1 by newly elected board members, who will help form a majority that backs neighborhood schools and opposes busing for diversity and mandatory year-round schools.

"Parents haven't really liked what was done," Tart said. "But we always did what we did with the children in mind. That was the big picture."

The outgoing board members received awards Tuesday from the district, the state PTA and the Wake chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators.

"We have one of the best school districts in the nation," school board Chairman Kevin Hill said to the retiring board members. "I want to thank you for the role you had in making this happen."

One of the challenges facing the new board majority is implementing changes in the midst of the recession. The state budget picture is expected to be rough next year as well.

"There's no silver bullet or easy fix to complex problems and challenges," Head said.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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