Unfunded mandate

Published 10:34 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

GATESVILLE – Even though the North Carolina General Assembly is reconsidering a significant change in the maximum number of students per classroom in grades K-3 in the state’s public schools, pending legislation still impacts local school districts.

As reported by this newspaper last week, the North Carolina House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass House Bill 13 Class Size Requirement Changes. That proposed legislation, which now must be approved by the State Senate, gives local school districts the flexibility they requested for class size scheduling in kindergarten through the third grade.

However, the proposal, if passed, will effect public school districts in the Roanoke-Chowan area. Maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level.

The Gates County Schools Board of Education and administrative staff say they are committed to the goal of reducing class size and worked diligently to implement a plan that would reduce class size by hiring an additional teacher at each of the elementary schools.

“As we begin to discuss preliminary planning for staffing needs in our schools in the 2017-18 school year, we are faced with the possibility of implementing new class size regulations that are outlined in the G.S. 115-C-301 (c), where the LEA class size averages are to match the funded allotment ratio and the maximum individual class size is limited to no more than three over the LEA ratio at any given time during the school year,” said Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams.

“Based on project enrollment, Gates County Schools will be required to add at least five teachers to meet this new requirement. While the intent of the legislation aligns with our goals, we are concerned with the unintended consequences that this unfunded mandate will cause in our district,” Williams added.

Williams said the local school system will be faced with options that are not fiscally sustainable and/or will have a negative effect on the quality of education provided to the students. They are as follows:

The district will be faced with adding more than $250,000 additional dollars to its local budget annually to fund an additional five teachers needed to meet this requirement.

Art, Physical Education, Music and other elective teachers are funded through the teacher allotment received from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. If local funding is not available, the district may have to consider implementing its Reduction in Force (RIF) policy and eliminate these teachers from their educational program in order to fund classroom teachers. This would eliminate planning time they are required to provide to all teachers on a daily basis and have a negative impact on the development of creativity, thinking skills, collaboration within groups, and soft skills we believe are enhanced when students participate in the Arts and PE on a regular basis.

Teacher Assistants will also become an item for reduction because the funding would be needed to cover costs associated with complying with the new K-3 class size mandate.

Positions from grades 4-12 may be considered for RIF or reduced through attrition, then shifted to the elementary grades, undoing the reductions to upper elementary and middle school class sizes the district put in place this school year. Class sizes in grades 4-8 could also return to 30 or more students, which is not conducive to quality instruction and high student achievement results

Local spending on programs such as athletics, field trips, local teacher supplements, band, theatre, etc. may need to be severely reduced or eliminated in order to maintain a sustainable local budget.

According to Assistant Gates County Superintendent Tammy Boone, “We understand that all children learn differently and may require additional supports in place in order to be academically successful. Therefore, we are not in favor of the possibility that our Arts and Physical Education programs may have to be eliminated in order to accommodate the K-3 class size mandate. Arts Education does not take place in isolation within the classroom; instead, it is integrated into the learning environment as a unique effort to address the needs of all children and offer them an equal and adequate opportunity for learning that will benefit them in the classroom and society.”

Dr. Williams shared that “We pride ourselves on maintaining small class sizes for grades K-5; therefore, an increase in class size for both 4th and 5th grade could pose additional academic concerns for educators. For example, students may not be able to engage in collaborative learning time or center activity time and teachers may lose their ability to work with students in small group settings. While we are not opposed to smaller class sizes for grades K-3 because it will allow teachers more time to focus on addressing the needs of all students in a smaller classroom setting, we are opposed to being faced with having to brainstorm how to fund this venture without support from our State officials.”

At this time, HB 13 offers a modification to the K-3 Class Size mandate; however, officials with Gates County Schools are hopeful that members of the NC General Assembly will engage in more collaborative planning regarding this matter and make a final decision that will be in the best interest of the children.

During a special session held in December, the NC House, after hearing complaints from school districts across the state, approved legislation aimed at easing off the numbers of the class size changes for grades K-3. However, the NC Senate took no action on that same legislation.

Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County was the lead sponsor of the bill and issued a statement, saying, “House Bill 13 provides flexibility to local school boards as to how they spend monies allocated to them for teacher salaries. While recognizing the goal of reducing class sizes in lower grades, the House, in passing House Bill 13, is giving local school systems more time to meet that common goal.”

Public school superintendents across the state expressed concern that this unfunded legislative mandate would force their districts to spend millions of additional dollars in hiring the teachers needed to fill the extra classrooms generated by reducing class size. Some were studying ways to meet that demand by cutting specialty teachers – arts, music and physical education. The only other option was for school boards to ask their respective county commissioners for increased local funds to cover the salaries of these added teachers.

Last year, State Senate GOP leaders devised a new formula that required school districts to male class sizes smaller, particularly in grades K-3. That formula, Senate leaders said, would bring the average class sizes in grades K-3 in line with the state’s prescribed teacher-student ratio, which varies by grade.

In kindergarten, the prescribed teacher-student ratio is one teacher per 18 students. In first grade, it’s one teacher per 16 students, and in grades 2-3, it’s one teacher per 17 students.

While lowering the ratio would place a financial strain on all school districts statewide, it, of course, would serve as a monetary nightmare for small, rural districts.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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