Wake County school leaders question class-size reductions

Wake County school leaders are warning that proposed class-size reductions could put a crunch on a district that’s already facing challenges keeping up with rapid student growth.

The state Senate budget would reduce class sizes in the early elementary school grades to 15 students as part of a push that Republican legislative leaders say would improve education. Wake school leaders said Monday that it would not only be challenging to find spaces in existing elementary schools to meet those smaller class sizes, but would also increase the number of new schools that would need to be built.

“It’s not like we’re rejecting what otherwise might be valuable,” Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill told school board members Monday. “It’s a rock and a hard place for us.”

The Senate budget adopted last week would cut about 5,000 teacher assistant positions across the state to help offset the cost of adding about 2,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes. Various studies have indicated that smaller classes can improve achievement by allowing teachers to focus more attention on individual students.

The Senate plan would reduce teacher-student ratios in grades 1-3 next year by one student, so each teacher would have 16 students. The following year, teacher-student ratios in kindergarten would drop by one student to 17 kids per teacher. And in grades 1-3, each teacher would have 15 students in 2016-2017.

The House budget does not include class-size reductions. Legislators will be working to reconcile the different budgets.

In the meantime, the N.C. School Boards Association has asked school districts to provide information on the impact of the class-size reductions.

Wake school officials have estimated that the Senate budget would cut funding this year for about 500 teacher assistants while adding 145 new teachers to reduce class size.

School board member Bill Fletcher has previously pointed to the way that class-size reductions passed when Democratic Gov. Mike Easley was in office during the 2000s cost Wake extra money to build additional new schools. He said the new class-size reductions would cost Wake 145 classroom spaces.

“That’s four to five schools at $23 million apiece, assuming you could find the land and the capital to build them,” he said. “That’s a challenge.”

With 155,000 students, Wake County is the largest school system in North Carolina and is projected to add 3,000 more students each year. Voters last approved an $810 million school construction bond referendum in 2013. Another school bond could be placed on the 2016 ballot.

The school board’s government relations committee discussed Monday passing a statement in support of the House budget. Instead, board members agreed to share information about their concerns about the Senate budget, including the impact of the class-size reductions, with key lawmakers.

“This may be an unintended consequence that they may not realize will have an impact on us,” said school board member Keith Sutton, chairman of the government relations committee.

Hui: 919-829-4534;

Twitter: @nckhui