The state legislature’s plan to cut elementary school class sizes could lead to larger class sizes in all Wake County schools, including 40 or more students in some elementary classrooms.
State lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students this school year to between 19 and 21 students starting in July. Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill warned Tuesday that unless the state provides relief, the district will have to consider options such as increasing class sizes for older students, cutting art and music classes, laying off teachers and reassigning students on short notice.
“I wish we didn’t have to consider any options, but given where we are with the legislature I think some variation of those is going to have be something we’re going to have to look at,” Merrill said in an interview Tuesday.
Merrill said 66 elementary schools lack 286 needed classroom spaces and that it could take a year to move mobile classroom units. One way to meet the new rules, he said, could be to have elementary classrooms of 40 students with two teachers.
Merrill said Wake might also have to consider increasing class sizes in grades four through 12 to come up with additional money to fund the new teachers needed in elementary schools.
“I don’t really like any of them, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to employ some portions of those,” Merrill said.
Lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade as part of last year’s state budget. School officials around the state say the changes remove their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers.
“To take that flexibility away from the site-based administrator and to invest it on Jones Street is bad policy,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, it’s bad policy.”
School districts may have to lay off many specialized teachers because they don’t have the needed state certification to teach regular K-3 classes.
A new report from the liberal N.C. Justice Center says meeting the new class sizes will cost school districts as much as $388 million more per year in operating costs as well as significant capital costs.
Many school districts have supported a compromise bill, House Bill 13, which they say would provide them with enough flexibility to continue to spread money around to offer the special classes. The bill was unanimously approved by the House but has stalled in the Senate, where leaders are questioning how school districts are using state money meant to reduce class sizes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said last month, “It’s obvious to us that money has been spent on something other than class size reduction.”
Merrill said the extra money that the state has provided schools since 2011 for kindergarten through third grade has been offset by deeper cuts in K-12 teacher funding.
On Wednesday, Save Our Schools – NC Parents for HB 13 will hold a rally from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Halifax Mall behind the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.
Wake school officials estimate it would cost $26 million more to hire 460 additional K-3 teachers without eliminating elementary school art, music and PE. In contrast, Merrill said $1.8 million more would be needed for 32 additional teachers if House Bill 13 passed.
Merrill said two major problems in Wake, the state’s largest district with 159,549 students, with meeting the new class sizes is finding the teachers and finding the space.
Only 41 of Wake’s 356 elementary art, music, drama and PE teachers have certifications to teach regular elementary classes. Merrill said Wake could spend $115,000 to get provisional elementary teaching certificates for those educators.
Amid the threat of potential layoffs, Merrill said letters were sent to those specialists asking them to be patient and to hang on as long as they can.
Merrill said Wake might be able to get some of the new K-3 teachers by reassigning instructional resource teachers who are based at schools to help other teachers and by moving people from the Central Office.
Merrill said Wake can also hire new applicants but would run the risk of getting people who are sub-standard.
In addition to larger class sizes, Merrill said other options to meet the new state rules include:
▪ Eliminate elementary school specials – art, music and drama – and use the positions to hire more classroom teachers;
▪ Eliminate one or more of the specials at elementary schools if partial funding is provided;
▪ Reassign students from schools without space to schools that have space.
“I don’t understand how you can say that you’re reducing class sizes by giving up all these specials,” said school board member Roxie Cash.
With year-round schools starting the new school year in July, Merrill said a decision is needed soon for those schools.
“We’ve dragged our feet as long as we could with year-rounds,” Merrill said.
As a hedge against the state not providing relief, Merrill wants to ask the Wake County Board of Commissioners for $13 million of the $26 million needed to maintain arts and PE programs at elementary schools. It’s part of a request for a record $56.6 million increase.
Merrill wants the county to provide $466.5 million of his $1.6 billion operating budget for the 2017-18 school year. Other items using local dollars in Merrill’s budget include:
▪ Start a three-year plan to hire more guidance counselors and social workers to reach nationally recommended averages – $10 million;
▪ Operate new schools and support changes related to renovations – $3.9 million;
▪ Increase extra-duty pay for teachers who perform additional jobs such as coaching academic and athletic teams – $2.6 million;
▪ Increase pay for support staff who work in hard-to-fill positions such as bus drivers – $2.2 million.