Education

Schools get reprieve from NC mandate. Next challenge: finding classroom space

Wake County may have dodged a bullet this year, but school leaders say they’ll have to be creative to find the hundreds of new classrooms that will be needed in 2018 to meet the state’s new smaller elementary school class sizes.

Wake school leaders had warned that they would need 462 additional teachers to meet smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade that were set to begin in the 2017-18 school year. But in a deal announced this week by Senate leaders, the new smaller class sizes won’t go into effect until the 2018-19 school year.

No specific options for dealing with the mandate were discussed Tuesday. But last week, Superintendent Jim Merrill had laid out options such as reassigning students to elementary schools that have the space and having classrooms of 40 students with two teachers.

“It’s likely to be some combination of creative use of space and perhaps other things,” school board member Bill Fletcher said Tuesday. “The idea of moving a trailer into place within 12 months is not something that’s going to happen in the places where we have the highest concentration of kids. The municipalities won’t permit it.”

State lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students this school year to between 19 and 21 students as part of last year’s budget. School officials around the state said the change removed 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.

The House unanimously passed House Bill 13 in February to provide class-size flexibility. After being put on hold for two months, the Senate moved quickly this week to revise the bill to delay the extensive class-size reductions a year.

House Bill 13 was approved by the Senate on Tuesday and now goes back to the House for consideration.

Wake school officials estimated it would cost $26.2 million more to hire 462 additional K-3 teachers without eliminating elementary school art, music and PE. Merrill had included $13 million of the $26.2 million he said was needed into his operating budget for the 2017-18 school year.

On Tuesday, school officials said the revised version of HB 13 would cost Wake $1.8 million more and require 31 additional teachers.

“This is a fairly significant improvement over needing to find $13 million or $26 million,” Fletcher said.

Merrill said that if HB 13 passes, he will lower the increased funding he wants from the Wake County Board of Commissioners from $56.6 million to $45.4 million.

While not in the legislation, Senate Republican leaders have said they’ll look at how to fund teachers in subjects like art, music, drama and PE “to ensure a smooth transition to smaller class sizes.”

If lawmakers follow up on this pledge, Merrill said “that should help mitigate what otherwise would be an expense for us.”

During the development of the HB 13 compromise, Senate leaders accused Wake and other school districts of not providing information requested on how they were using state money meant to reduce class sizes.

The bill’s new wording says superintendents would be required to submit regular reports on class sizes, total numbers of classroom and special subject-area teachers and how they’re funded. State schools Superintendent Mark Johnson would be authorized to audit districts and penalize those who submit inaccurate reports.

Merrill said he wants Wake to be involved in developing the format for the new reports.

While lawmakers might help with funding for special subjects, Wake school leaders said there’s still the major issue of finding new classroom space for the smaller K-3 class sizes. School board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said the district might have to consider putting more enrollment caps on schools, which prevent newly arriving families from attending, to meet the new state requirements.

Last week, Merrill said 66 elementary schools lack 286 needed classroom spaces.

“I think as soon as this is passed, we need to start working on a plan for capital,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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