Johnston school board says class-size bill puts the arts at stake

The Johnston County Board of Education has thrown its support behind an N.C. House bill that could save the jobs of art and gym teachers in the district and across the state.

Last year’s budget bill for North Carolina included a provision putting a firm cap on class sizes in kindergarten through the third grade. In the past, districts had some wiggle room with those class sizes, with the state funding a teacher for every 18 kindergarteners and districts able to expand that to an average of 21. That wiggle room allowed school systems to stretch money farther and fund teachers in art, music and physical education.

Brian Vetrano, director of human resources for Johnston schools, said the school system would have to add around 85 new K-3 teachers to accommodate the hard caps.

“For example, at Polenta Elementary, if this law were in place ... right now, we would have to add approximately six or seven teaching positions, which would mean we would have to add six or seven mobile unites to Polenta Elementary,” Vetrano said.

If the General Assembly doesn’t change the cap law or doesn’t make more money available for teachers, Johnston schools might target “enhancement” positions, like arts and music, Vetrano said, calling the possible cuts “drastic.” Members of the Johnston County school board also had some strong language about the possible cuts.

“I am 100 percent supportive of the arts, and the reason is I can see the difference that it makes in some children’s lives,” said school board member Peggy Smith, a former principal. “It is sometimes the only reason they come to school, where they might learn some reading and math, because they come to have art class that day.”

“I just find it unconscionable that we would eliminate the very reason children love learning,” Smith said.

Vetrano pointed to House Bill 13 as possible relief. That bill restores the wiggle room of up to six students and an average of three students per grade over allotments of 18 for kindergarten, 16 for first grade and 17 for second and third grades. The bill passed unanimously in the house and is now awaiting a full vote in the Senate.

“There is a lot of support for this House bill,” Vetrano told the school board last month. “I think your support of this resolution would strengthen support of House Bill 13. It doesn’t provide complete relief, but it would certainly allow us to do things in line with what we’ve done in the past to provide those enhancement positions.”

Another route, Vetrano said, would be to increase the number of students in fourth through 12th grades, where the state imposes no caps. Increasing class sizes in the upper would allow the enhancement positions survive.

Johnston thinks its line to the State House is shorter than in many other districts, as two former school board members, Larry Strickland and Donna White, recently joined the ranks of state representatives.

Current school board chairman Mike Wooten said the board would be lobbying the General Assembly to keep the old funding model, choosing larger elementary class sizes over cuts to the arts.

“It’s our job not only as public officials but as stakeholders to the school system to contact our General Assembly so these unfunded mandates don’t keep happening,” Wooten said. “It can’t happen because it takes resources out of the classroom, teachers out of the classroom. It irritates me.”

Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson