At a meeting with Onslow County leaders, state Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Jacksonville, offered hope that state lawmakers will relieve some of the pressure next school year’s K-3 class size mandate is putting on school districts.
“They’re trying to find a compromise somewhere, and I think that’s exactly what will happen,” Brown said, referring to the state’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.
Onslow County Schools, like many districts across the state, lacks enough classroom space and teachers to accommodate next year's state-mandated K-3 class size limits. Right now, the state allows school districts to maintain an average of 20 students per teacher for grades K-3. But starting next school year, that number drops to between 16 and 18 students, depending on the grade level. To meet the upcoming requirements, the district would need to hire 51 additional teachers and create 87 more classrooms, said Pam Thomas, school board chairwoman.
“We’re not trying to pull something over their [state legislators] eyes,” Thomas said. “We’ve got the data to support the need for additional classrooms, right now.”
In a last minute effort to persuade state lawmakers to give the district flexibility before next year’s requirements take effect, Onslow County school board members convened a special joint meeting on Friday with local state representatives and county commissioners.
During the discussion, Thomas expressed the board’s desire for lawmakers to issue a waiver, exempting the district from next year’s class size mandate. Annual enrollment growth, which often occurs in the middle of the school year, makes it difficult for the district to accommodate the state’s current class size restrictions without moving some students into another class, she said.
“Teachers will say, ‘We’d rather not lose our students – we’ve had them six months,’” Thomas said. “We want to be able to protect the integrity of that classroom, even if they have two more students.”
The school district, which is the 12th largest in the state, has almost 26,000 students. Every year, enrollment grows by about 300 students, Thomas said.
State Sen. Harry Brown told school board members that the state legislature probably won't address the class size issue until May. But this timeline would make it extremely difficult - if not impossible - for school districts to pass their budgets by the state's May 15 deadline.
"If they are going to do something, move on it at least by March," superintendent Rick Stout told Brown. "I don't know what we're going to do if it goes to May," he said.
If state lawmakers fail to provide an adequate solution by March, school board members will resort to "plan B," Stout said. "Basically move all of our enhancement teachers out on carts and use every space available, even if it means part of the cafeterias. That's what we'll have to do," he said.
But even after the school district converts gymnasiums, media centers, music and art rooms into regular classrooms, it will still need 14 additional classrooms, Stout said.
“So, what does that mean? We’ll have to find mobile units that currently exist on our property, or buy new ones," he said. "Or make combination classrooms – where you have three teachers in two classrooms to try to make the numbers work for that K-3 legislation.”
The need for more K-3 teachers will also force the district to increase 4-12 class sizes to between 30 and 35 students, Stout said.
The plan to assign music, art and physical education teachers to carts, which they would use to transport instruction materials from classroom to classroom, has many commissioners and school board members worried those programs will fade out over time.
“You’re going to lose those teachers. And you’re going to lose those programs,” said Earl Taylor, Onslow County school board member. “And this county has placed great value on arts education and physical education. It is part of our culture. It can happen. And I can see it happening, once House Bill 13 sunsets.”
To ease some of the burden, county lawmakers could increase the share of local dollars the school board receives, said County Commissioner Mark Price. But this is an unpopular solution - one he's reluctant to support, Price said. “I would not want to see the tax rate to increase. That’s the primary reason I don’t think we need to get into renegotiating that funding formula," he said.
Sen. Harry Brown told county leaders the legislature has given school districts about $222 million to fund smaller K-3 class sizes. That's why many state lawmakers are reluctant to repeal the mandate or give school districts more time to implement it, he said.
“In the 14-15 budget, we started putting dollars in to reduce these class sizes, and what we found was that a lot of LEAs [Local Education Agencies] were not doing that," Brown said. "So, it’s frustrating for us as legislators, especially when we talk to our teachers that still have 25 kids in their class. They say, ‘Why can’t you help me?’ Well, we had been doing that, it almost came to a point where we had to mandate it to move the needle.”
To fully fund the upcoming K-3 class size restrictions, the state needs to provide $300 million to pay 4,750 teachers' salaries and benefits, a report from NC Justice Center estimates.
Brown said he thinks lawmakers would be willing to provide additional funding if more is needed. But he offered no specifics on how much the state legislature might allocate.