North Carolina school leaders are growing worried that state lawmakers won’t soften a mandated reduction in class sizes that could lead to cuts in art, music and physical education classes.
The state House unanimously passed House Bill 13 after school districts warned they might have to cut arts and PE classes to help pay for new class-size limits in kindergarten through third grade this fall.
But the legislation, which reduces but doesn’t eliminate the class-size cuts, has stalled in the Senate amid suspicions from some lawmakers about how schools are spending state dollars.
Now, school leaders say they have to plan for the worst because they’re not sure if and when the General Assembly may act on class sizes.
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We’ve got to assume the worst-case scenario. It’s a huge risk for us.
Jim Merrill, Wake County school superintendent
“We’ve got to assume the worst-case scenario,” Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill told school board members last week. “It’s a huge risk for us.”
For the state’s largest school district, Wake is looking at potentially adding 460 teachers to reduce class sizes. To help pay for the new teachers, Wake school administrators say they’d have to consider options such as sharply cutting art, music and physical education teachers and asking the county to provide $27 million more in local funding.
Legislators had reduced maximum class sizes starting this fall in kindergarten through third grade. Under the current law, maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level, and the maximum average class sizes for a school district would be even lower.
North Carolina doesn’t separately fund specialists such as arts and PE teachers, so school districts pay for them out of state dollars for regular classroom teachers. The reduction in maximum class sizes limits the flexibility that districts have to spread money around for special classes.
House Bill 13 would cap individual K-3 class sizes at 22 to 24 students, depending on grade level. Maximum average class sizes would range from 19 to 21 students.
We will need to fully review that financial information before we can make an informed decision on whether school districts’ choice to divert these funds away from class size reduction was appropriate.
Sen. Chad Barefoot, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee
Sen. Chad Barefoot, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said the Senate is conducting an investigation before deciding what to do about House Bill 13. The Wake Forest Republican said districts have been asked to provide data on where state dollars that were designated to reduce class size were being diverted.
“We will need to fully review that financial information before we can make an informed decision on whether school districts’ choice to divert these funds away from class size reduction was appropriate,” Barefoot said in a written statement. “After that, we will determine what, if anything, needs to be done.”
Many school districts and school groups back House Bill 13. The Johnston County school board unanimously passed a resolution in February supporting the legislation.
“While House Bill 13 does not provide complete relief for us, it would certainly allow us to do things in line with what we’ve done in the past to provide those enhancement positions (arts, PE),” Brian Vetrano, chief personnel officer for Johnston County Schools, said before the school board vote.
But House Bill 13 has been parked in the Senate Rules Committee instead of being sent to the Education Committee.
Senate Republicans are worried about being accused of reneging on their promise to reduce class sizes, according to Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation. It was the Senate that had inserted the class-size changes in last year’s state budget.
Senate Republicans are worried about being accused of reneging on their promise to reduce class sizes, according to Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation.
“In the end what we’re probably going to see is that the dire predictions of mass firings is not going to come through,” Stoops said. “There will be a way for school districts to address the problem. It’s just not that clear what that way will be.”
Education leaders have been pushing legislators to move quickly because they’re working on budgets now for the next school year. Merrill, the Wake superintendent, told board members he’s giving “an early warning notice” that he’ll have to budget for the new class sizes.
“I’m disappointed that I’m thinking in order to protect us, I need to add a budget case for K-3 impact, and that blows my budget totally,” he said.
The school board must submit a budget proposal to the county by May 15.
School board member Bill Fletcher asked Merrill whether the arts and PE teachers who might be laid off could get other jobs in Wake. But Merrill said few of those specialized teachers have the general certification needed for them to teach regular classes.
Arts teachers across the state are worrying that they may not have jobs this fall.
“We’re trying to hang on to the hope that something good will happen,” said James Daugherty, president of the N.C. Music Educators Association. “We just don’t have any news yet of what the Senate will do.”