Under the Dome

No quick move to ease class-size mandate, lawmakers say

First graders (left to right) Vanessa Mendez-Moreno, Lilah Morgan and Blake Ward work on art projects in Jennifer McIntyre’s art class at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner March 2, 2017.
First graders (left to right) Vanessa Mendez-Moreno, Lilah Morgan and Blake Ward work on art projects in Jennifer McIntyre’s art class at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner March 2, 2017. cliddy@newsobserver.com

State senators said Tuesday there would not be a quick change to state requirements on K-3 class sizes, despite calls from school districts and parent-teacher organizations.

Multiple senators say they are still gathering information from school districts before deciding if and how they will change a state law governing how many students can be in each classroom in kindergarten through third grade.

School districts around the state have warned that without changes to a law passed as part of last year’s budget they will have to let go of specialists such as art, music and physical-education teachers.

“Time is getting very short,” said Leanne Winner, director of government relations at the N.C. School Boards Association.

But senators say they are skeptical of that claim, pointing to millions of dollars earmarked for reducing K-3 class size over the past few years.

“We’re still trying to get some information rather than just reacting,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican. “It’s obvious to us that money has been spent on something other than class size reduction.”

The state has for years set goals for keeping class sizes low – typically 16, 17 or 18 students in early grades. But the law has long allowed schools to have average class sizes of 21 students in elementary grades and individual classes to have as many as 24 students.

That difference between aspirational and actual size first arose during former Gov. Jim Hunt’s administration. And the gap has long been used to fund specialty teachers, according to current and former officials with the Department of Public Instruction.

The budget provisions that kick in for the next school year eliminate that leeway, putting pressure on local districts to find money for more teachers and more classrooms. And school officials point out that as lawmakers were lowering class-size requirements over the past six years, they also were cutting their budgets in other ways, such as asking them to find unspecified cuts and hand state tax dollars back to the state through so-called “negative reserves.”

Senators say they are perplexed by the outcry and question whether money sent to school districts for reducing class sizes has gone to other areas of the school system. To get at that question, lawmakers asked the N.C. Association of School Administrators to send a survey seeking certain information from each of the state’s 115 school districts.

“Not everyone has sent back data, which makes it a problem,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican. Even in cases where senators received responses, he said, some of the information is incomplete or different from what was sought.

“What some of the data has shown is there were some districts that did not reduce class sizes with the funding we sent them,” Barefoot said. Until that information is complete, he said, the Senate is going to be reluctant to move on any bill.

Katherine Joyce, director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, said that 113 of the state’s 115 school districts responded to the survey and that the information was turned over to the legislature’s fiscal staff.

“They were very responsive, very cooperative and transparent in what they’re doing,” she said. Some individual senators have followed up with requests for more information to individual districts.

House members have passed a bill giving school districts more flexibility. Leading education budget writers in the House say they have not heard from senators if there is a timetable for moving forward.

“We’re getting up against decision time,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican.

Joyce recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to act. Early April is an important time for school districts, she said, because it’s both the beginning of the budget season and prime time for hiring teachers.

Winner agreed, saying smaller districts will have a particular problem in recruiting teachers as North Carolina’s larger districts snap up available teaching talent.

Teachers must be given advance warning if they’re to be let go, so some of those warnings will go out next month if they haven’t already.

“By and large, they will need to know what’s happening during the month of April, and preferably early in the month,” Joyce said.

But senators say they won’t move until they’re convinced that more flexibility won’t interfere with efforts to reduce class sizes in early grades.

“Lowering classroom size in Kindergarten through third grade is an important priority for the Senate and we want to make sure we know what’s happening before acting,” Barefoot said. “The question we keep asking over and over again is how did we send the districts tens of millions of dollars and they are still having this issue? What did they do with the money?”

Mark Binker: 919-807-1879, @binker