Like other school systems across the state, Craven County Schools is struggling to meet class size reduction mandates from the state legislature, mandates that thus far have gone unfunded.
Barring any mitigating legislation, public schools will be required to shrink class sizes in kindergarten through third grade at the start of the 2018-19 school year in the fall. Under the new guidelines, class sizes must not exceed 18 students in kindergarten, 16 students in first grade and 17 students in second and third grades.
The class size reductions will likely require new teachers to be hired, as fewer students per class will mean more classes to be taught. However, state legislators have not provided school systems with any additional money to hire new teachers, meaning that money would have to come from local taxpayers.
The new ruleswere originally scheduled to start in 2017, but legislators voted last year to give schools another year to plan. But with local schools still finalizing their hiring decisions for 2018-19, the N.C. General Assembly has not relaxed the rule.
A recent effort in the state Senate to ease the class size restrictions appears to be in legislative limbo. Filed earlier this month during the legislative short session, Senate Bill 703 would allow K-3 classes to exceed the new maximums by up to six students. On Jan. 12 the legislation was sent to the Senate rules committee, where it is expected to be tied up indefinitely.
With no funding resolution in sight, school systems are weighing potential cuts to already locally-funded teaching positions in physical education, art and music as well as increasing the number of students per class in higher grades.
According to Craven County Schools Superintendent Meghan Doyle, based on numbers from the end of the last school year, the changes would cost the school system $4.2 million for additional teachers and infrastructure. That figure includes about $1 million for facilities, including 21 temporary modular classrooms, and $3.16 million for an additional 61 teachers.
Doyle said the changes set to take place next year are a continuation of class size reductions that began with the 2017-18 school year.
“This year we were required to have maximums that were no greater than one to 23 (teacher to student ratio) in each classroom and have a district average of one to 19,” said Doyle.
With the school system budget deadline looming in May, Doyle said she still holds out hope that the General Assembly will provide a funding solution.
“I still am hopeful, just based on the past. But we’re hearing that they (General Assembly) won’t look at it in the short session, that they won’t address it until May, which poses a significant amount of problems for us in terms of planning,” said Doyle.
Barring a solution from the state legislature, Doyle said the Craven County commissioners would be the school system’s last resort. While infrastructure funding would typically fall under the commissioners' purview, Doyle said staffing needs are another matter.
“I personally feel this is definitely a state function, and so asking the commissioners to fund that level of personnel costs at one time is a significant ask,” Doyle noted.
Thus far, the Board of Education has been “adamant” that the changes will not affect art, music and P.E. classes in Craven County schools, said Doyle. That determination, however, has necessitated the increase of class sizes in fourth through 12th grades.
“We have schools now that have pretty large class sizes, at the high school level and the middle school level. Definitely higher than they are used to from the past,” said Doyle.
The superintendent said the school system is working closely with the county manager and commissioners to communicate their concerns to state representatives. She said the two boards are planning to meet to review options, which include asking for the funding outright and applying for a waiver from the mandate. According to state statute, another option would be for Doyle to surrender her state salary.
Doyle said the class size issue is complicated by the number of current teacher vacancies. As of Jan. 23, Craven County Schools had 50 unfilled teacher positions, she said.
“Quite frankly, the level of frustration is very high,” Doyle admitted. “We don’t have great options. Even if everything was perfect today and the money was there to pay for teachers, they’re not there.”
One of the teachers who would likely be affected by the class size mandate is Christy Wilson, a former Ben D. Quinn Elementary teacher who is in her first year at Oaks Road Elementary School in New Bern.
Wilson, who was named Craven County Teacher of the Year for 2016-17, said her fifth-grade class would likely increase in size should the mandate go unfunded by the state.
“When you look at fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, in some places they’re looking at having 45-plus kids in a classroom. I don’t understand how you can effectively teach fourth- and fifth-grade students having that many kids in the room,” she said.
According to Wilson, some classrooms would be unable to accommodate that many students.
“When I had 28 kids in a classroom, it was all we could do to breathe. We were tripping over each other,” she said.
Wilson noted that increased class sizes would also affect the instructional environment.
“I just want to make sure that what I’m giving my kids is the absolute best that I can give them. But when you have that many students that you’re trying to reach at one time, how effective can I really be as a teacher?” she said.
Wilson said that, while she’s in favor of smaller class sizes, she believes the changes should be made incrementally and with more input from teachers.
“I think there has to be more communication with our members of the General Assembly speaking with educators in the classroom,” she said.
When asked about the possibility of the General Assembly providing funding for the class size reductions, N.C. District 2 Senator Norman Sanderson, who represents Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties, said the legislature is committed to finding a resolution.
“Last year, school districts began raising concerns that they would no longer be able to fund enhancement teachers in areas like art, music, drama and P.E.,” said Sanderson. “We asked them to share their calculations with lawmakers so we could understand how much, if any, additional funding was needed and are in the process of analyzing the data.”
Sanderson said, since 2014, local school districts have received roughly $222 million to reduce student-to-teacher ratios.
“It has been proven over and over again that smaller class sizes produce better learning results,” said Sanderson. “I don’t think any parent, teacher or school administrator would not welcome this result.”