02/13/18 — Smaller classrooms, less hassle

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Smaller classrooms, less hassle

By Joey Pitchford
Published in News on February 13, 2018 5:50 AM

A bill working its way through the North Carolina General Assembly could ease the burden of class size requirements set to take effect in N.C. public schools this fall, but also includes unrelated items which have some Democrats crying foul.

The changes, made to House Bill 90, would phase in class size requirements over a span of four years, instead of requiring them to be implemented in July. Where the original legislation would have reduced class sizes in grades K-3 to between 18 and 16 students, the changes included in H.B. 90 reduce class sizes by a set amount across the board each year until the 2020-21 school year.

Under the new legislation, in the 2018-2019 school year, average class sizes in grades K-3 would be capped at 20 students per teacher, with individual classes allowed up to 23 students.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the average class size could not exceed 19 students, with an individual cap of 22.

In the next year, the sizes would again drop by one student, both on average and for individual classes.

And finally, in the 2020-21 school year, the original limits would take effect. Those limits set the maximum class size in Kindergarten at 18 students, 16 students in first grade, and 17 students in second and third grades.

Rep. John Bell, house majority leader, said that the changes to the bill were the result of months of work behind the scenes.

"I don't think I've heard anyone say they don't want smaller class sizes," Bell said. "I think this represents a lot of good work over six or seven months, and it's a continuous process."

The bill also includes a recurring $61 million in funding for "program enhancement" teachers, including art, music and physical education.

Wayne County Public Schools leadership and members of the Wayne County Board of Education have frequently expressed concern that class size restrictions could cause the district to have to cut those positions, because the district would need the money to hire new classroom teachers.

"We've actually put this as a recurring statutory appropriation, so it will come back each year," Bell said.

Wayne County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Dunsmore praised the bill, and said it will make getting class sizes down substantially easier.

"We all slept well over the weekend," he said. "This is great for us because with the new construction project at Meadow Lane and then the new classrooms going up in the northern part of the county, we're actually better set up than a lot of other counties."

Dunsmore praised the local delegation to the General Assembly, and thanked them for their work in getting the bill done.

"We have a great relationship with our legislators, and they have done a great job," he said. "In talking with Jimmy Dixon and John Bell, they have told me several times to be patient, and that's not always easy for me."

Some have taken issue, however, with some of the other pieces of H.B. 90.

That is because the bill also diverts $57 million paid by utility companies working on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline away from environmental and economic projects, as Gov. Roy Cooper worked out with the companies in a memorandum of understanding, and gives it to public schools in the counties in which the pipeline will be built.

In addition, H.B. 90 also adds another member to the combined elections and ethics board that the state Supreme Court ruled against last month.

A majority in that court ruled that the new board prevented Cooper from carrying out policies, because it forced him to fill half of the board with Republican nominees. The new legislation would give Cooper a ninth, unaffiliated appointment, as well as the authority to remove any member at his discretion.

The Senate passed the bill Friday, and the House voted and passed it Tuesday.

Republicans in the General Assembly have a veto-proof majority, so the bill is expected to become law even if Cooper decides to veto it.

Cooper expressed disappointment in the "political shenanigans" included in the bill in a press release last week. He has not yet indicated, however, that he will veto the bill.