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Wednesday, 29 March 2017 13:49

Classroom size uncertainty to impact budgets

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School systems in Western North Carolina were hoping a proposed piece of legislation regarding class size requirements would make it through the General Assembly this session to take some pressure off their 2017-18 budgets, but now it seems unlikely the bill will pass. 

Newly elected Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, introduced House Bill 13 in January shortly after being sworn into office. The current law states that classroom sizes for Kindergarten through third grade can’t exceed 19 to 21 students, depending on the grade, by three students. 

Corbin’s HB13 would allow classroom sizes to exceed the cap by no more than six students, which would give local systems more flexibility without having to hire new teachers to deal with a small overflow problem. 

In theory, everyone is for smaller classroom sizes so students can receive more one-on-one instruction from teachers, but it can have unintended consequences for local school systems. While the state is mandating lower K-3 class sizes, legislators are unlikely to provide additional funding to school systems to hire more teachers. 

Corbin said HB13 is a common sense bill that will save WNC school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars while still keeping class sizes low. 

However, Corbin’s counterpart — Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — is not in favor of easing the classroom size restrictions. Since the legislation that passed last year to lower class sizes originated in the Senate and was supported by Davis, he doesn’t see the Senate undoing that measure. 

Davis has said that research shows lower class sizes enhance student performance, which is why Republicans have made it a top priority in education policy. Since Republicans took over in 2011, Davis said the state has invested more than $200 million to local school systems to reduce class sizes and he would like to see more accountability for that funding before considering any other changes. 

Superintendent Dr. Anne Garrett said Haywood County Schools will need to rethink its proposed budget now that HB13 doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The original plan was to put any additional funding the school system receives from its annual allocation from the county toward increasing teacher supplement pay. 

“We securitized our budget because we wanted to increase supplements for all our staff — since 2008 we’ve not changed anything with supplements,” Garrett said. 

Haywood County Schools has recently lost about 30 teachers to Buncombe County, which offers a higher supplement. Buncombe County’s average supplement pay is $3,721, compared to Haywood’s $1,967.

Currently, teachers in Haywood County receive a 2 to 5 percent supplement to their salary depending on their years of service. Garrett said the new plan would have put teachers on a supplement scale from 4 percent to 7 percent to make Haywood more competitive. She said the school system was able to pull together $423,000 to put toward implementing the new supplement scale, but now that money will be needed to hire more teachers. 

“We’re getting some additional money this year from commissioners because of our funding formula but with not knowing what HB13 will do, we had to use that additional money to put 10 more positions in the budget to be on the safe side,” Garrett said. “It’s an unfunded mandate if it’s not funded by the state. So right now we just can’t afford to increase supplements.”

Macon County elementary schools are nearing capacity already, and the stringent classroom size restrictions will greatly impact next year’s budget. 

“Unless changes are made to the current law, Macon will need seven additional teachers next year,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin. “We are looking at a number of options, but in order to address the new legislation without impacting other classrooms, additional local funding may be needed.”

Swain County Schools Superintendent Sam Pattillo said his schools would also struggle to meet the class size requirements next year and wishes the Legislature would make quicker decisions about education funding. 

“Timing is crucial in planning. How can a group of elected officials hold up scheduling and planning for students in our state?” he said. “Our county does not have the means to provide local funding to meet this criteria — another example of the impact on low wealth students and a widening gap to a fair and equal education for everyone.”

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