Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday he would not veto a bill that would give North Carolina elementary schools more time to reduce class sizes but includes other legislative changes he opposes.
The bill would phase in class-size changes in kindergarten through third grade over the next four years instead of putting them into effect this fall. The bill would also increase funding for pre-kindergarten to eliminate the state’s waiting list for the program over the next four years.
But House Bill 90 also includes unrelated provisions that would change the composition of the State Board of Elections and would take away Cooper’s control of a $58 million fund tied to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Cooper, a Democrat, has accused Republican lawmakers of “political shenanigans” and “partisan hypocrisy” for not having a standalone bill on the class-size issue.
Cooper said he would allow the bill to become law without his signature because of the need to provide the class-size fix and to expand funding for pre-K. He called the rest of the bill “political attacks and power grabs.”
“The good parts of this bill are not a celebration,” Cooper said at a press conference at the Executive Mansion. “They are just a sigh of relief. A sigh of relief that came too late, but we’re glad it’s here. Clearly, clearly the legislature has heard our voices.”
Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore issued a statement Wednesday saying the governor should recuse himself from the bill due to a state ethics complaint filed against Cooper. Donald Bryson, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, is questioning whether Cooper accepted an illegal gift tied to his administration’s approval of a key Atlantic Coast Pipeline permit.
The bill takes $58 million that energy companies building a pipeline through Eastern North Carolina are expected to give state government as part of a deal Cooper negotiated, and distribute it to school districts in eight counties the pipeline would run through. Cooper calls it a mitigation fund to offset environmental effects of the pipeline, but Republicans repeatedly called it a “slush fund.”
The elections board changes are the response to Republicans’ recent loss in the state Supreme Court in a ruling that said their earlier attempt to reshape the board was unconstitutional. In the latest iteration, the board would have nine members, including one member not affiliated with a political party.
School districts have been clamoring for state lawmakers to delay changes that would require them to lower average K-3 class sizes from 20 students per room this school year to roughly 17 students starting in July. School officials said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire art, music and physical education teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.
Under the deal announced last week by Republican legislative leaders, class sizes in kindergarten through third grade will remain unchanged for the 2018-19 school year before being gradually lowered to the new averages for the 2021-22 school year.
The bill also provides $61.4 million a year for school districts to pay for arts and PE teachers.
The bill was overwhelmingy approved by the Senate on Friday and the House on Tuesday. Several Democratic lawmakers say they were only voting for the bill to help school districts who argued they can’t meet the class-size reductions this year.
Cooper and Democrats complained about the bill including the pipeline fund and the elections board changes.
“Using our kids and now our schools as tools for their power grab and their partisan attacks is pretty low, even for them.” Cooper said.