Class-size legislation raises concerns

Published 10:35 pm Friday, January 20, 2017

Legislation passed last year is sending ripple effects through state school districts, grappling with how to meet new rules with potential funding cuts.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a mandate to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grades in the 2017-2018 school year in an effort to give teachers more one-on-one time with each student.

In December, lawmakers met in a special session in which they reviewed this mandate. The House voted to reduce the changes to class sizes, but the Senate did not vote on the matter.

The mandate changes maximum individual class sizes from 24 students to 19-21 students, based on grade level.

While the prospect of smaller class sizes is a welcome change to educators, the move is also expected to cause unintended, negative consequences, as well.

Dr. Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools, said school districts receive funding through a combination of local, state and national sources. In the case of some state funding, he said the amount of money awarded is based off of the number of students.

If class sizes are reduced, so will the funding, and the first classes to experience cuts will likely be art, music and physical education.

“If you’re starting a school system from scratch, the state of North Carolina looks at your enrollment, and then they give you a certain number of positions based on your enrollment,” said Mark Doane, assistant superintendent. “You then take those positions, and then they give you a certain number of restrictions on class sizes, and you would take the number of positions that you are given, and you would build your classes around that. And then you would use any leftover, if there were leftovers, to use for things like art, music, foreign language at the high school.”

Phipps said there would be about nine positions in question next school year, if the legislature doesn’t relax the mandate. He said Beaufort County Schools tries to use state funding for more expensive positions, so the local funding can be carried over, but this can change throughout the year.

“We don’t get an allotment for those particular classes laid out specifically,” Phipps said. “You’re either going to have to cut positions, or you’re going to have to get additional money from another funding source.”

Another concern is the additional teachers who would need to be hired as classes split into smaller groups, and the lack of space to accommodate the additional positions, according to Phipps.

“We don’t physically have the space to put that many teachers. We just don’t have the room for it,” Phipps said. “I don’t think they realized what the consequence was going to be of the action that was taken.”

He said the school district has trimmed its budget substantially over the past several years, so now, any cuts would have to be in personnel. The school district had to cut 32 positions for the 2016-2017 year, Phipps said.

Although the Board of Commissioners could allot more money to help, Phipps said he doesn’t think it’s fair to them, either.

“You just wonder how much more you can sustain in terms of cuts until it really starts to impact the quality and level of services you provide,” he said.

Angie Lewis, an art teacher at Eastern Elementary School, said elective courses are important because they enhance skills learned in other classes and produce more well-rounded students.

“The things they are learning are things that are being taught in the other subject areas,” Lewis said. “It can improve their fine motor skills. … It also helps with their problem solving and their decision-making.”

She said experiencing subject areas, such as art, music and physical education makes school a more enjoyable experience for students.

“It’s a change of pace for a lot of the students who may have some difficulties with the rigor of what they have to do now as far as the Common Core classes,” Lewis said. “I think that it can boost their self-confidence, especially the age that we’re dealing with.”

Phipps said school officials view elective courses as valuable, and they will work to prevent any cuts by informing legislators of the situation. If the legislation remains as is, moving teachers between schools could be another option, as well, he said.

“We don’t mean that to connote that they are less important than others,” Phipps said. “We’re working hard to support the work that they do. We value the subject areas that they teach.”

Legislators have said the Senate will likely revisit the class-size mandates, and many are hoping they will find a solution.

Phipps said any necessary changes would not be put into effect until this fall.