Welborn, a Republican member of the Guilford County Board of Education, says her district—the third largest in the state—will need to find an additional $16.6 million and 242 new teaching positions to meet the state’s legislative mandate to cut class sizes for kindergarten through third grade beginning next school year.
“We would have to make such drastic cuts, we literally don’t know where we would come up with the money,” says Welborn. “You just don’t do that unless you have absolutely no choice but to do it.”
All across North Carolina, districts like Guilford County say a statutory loss of flexibility over class size may
soon yield massive job losses statewide among arts, music and physical education teachers, as well as teacher assistants.
And with a temporary fix to the class size crisis floundering in the state Senate, school district advocates say they expect North Carolina districts must begin dispensing pink slips to educators in the next two weeks.
“We’re not dealing with widgets. We’re dealing with people’s lives and their livelihoods,” says Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA), an organization that reps public school district leaders at the legislature.
The uncertainty puts at least 5,500 teaching jobs statewide in jeopardy as districts scramble to reallocate resources, according to the NCASA.
That doesn’t include teacher assistant positions, particularly crucial jobs in low-performing schools and districts jettisoned by the thousands in cash-starved districts since 2008. Without major legislative concessions in the coming weeks, K-12 leaders expect many more T.A. jobs will be on the chopping block this year.
One bipartisan-supported reprieve to the looming class size order, House Bill 13, gained unanimous approval in the state House in February, but despite advocates’ calls for urgent action this spring, the legislation has lingered in the Senate Rules Committee with little indication it will be taken up soon.
Sen. Bill Rabon, the influential eastern North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests, but his legislative assistant said this week that Rabon’s committee will not consider any House bills until the General Assembly’s April 27 crossover deadline.
Rabon’s assistant, meanwhile, offered no guarantees the committee would ever take up the class size fix, even as a pair of separate Senate bills filed in recent days approach the issue from considerably less lenient angles.
One Senate Republican proposal would order school principals to provide monthly reports to district superintendents on any classrooms not meeting the state’s ordered class sizes. Another draft bill offers a one-year respite on reducing class sizes, although it orders districts to cut their maximum individual class sizes in K-3 from one teacher per 24 students to one teacher per 23 students beginning in 2018-2019.
“I see that as a step in the right direction and some indication that there are senators that are hearing concerns from the districts and are trying to be responsive,” says Joyce.
Regardless, public school leaders say the state’s drive to reduce class sizes comes at a particularly arduous time for districts. With North Carolina teacher pay mired among the lowest in the nation, K-12 experts are reporting major teaching shortages and plummeting interest in teaching degrees in the UNC system.
To Welborn, the dearth of qualified, interested teachers renders districts’ task practically impossible.
“Now you’re going to cut loose 115 districts at the same time to cannibalize each other,” she says. “The chances of them being able to even locate those teachers is, in my view, unrealistic. We’ll be digging in the mud to find a warm body.”
As Policy Watch reported in November, the controversy stems from a GOP-led budget mandate last year that districts significantly reduce class sizes in the lower grades starting next academic year.
Republican lawmakers point to research indicating the positive impacts of smaller class sizes on students, particularly those from low-income homes. But districts say a loss of long-standing flexibility over class sizes without additional funding would force local governments to either reallocate resources on a massive scale or cough up millions more in local spending to hire teachers and build classroom space.
The first scenario—far more likely in most districts—would compel districts to pull the cash for new K-3 teaching positions from other funding pools, risking thousands of jobs for so-called “specialty” teachers working in arts and physical education.
School leaders say they’ve long used their statutory authority to exceed the state’s preferred K-3 class sizes—about one teacher per 16 to 18 students—in order to retain such teachers.
Scrambling school boards may also be forced to shrink staffing in grades 4-12, which are allowed greater leeway over classroom size today.
The outcry’s prompted some GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate to suggest districts are simply misusing their classroom funding.
“Are they wasting these positions in the office or doing special projects for the principal?” Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Moore, Randolph, asked in a House committee in February. “Are we looking at that? Because if (a local education agency) takes these funded positions and they use a bunch of them for something that’s not classroom-related, they’re hurting their own self. Are we looking at that to make sure that we’re holding their feet to the fire and they’re not putting these classroom positions where they shouldn’t be?”
It’s an argument that’s been restated by powerful Senate Republican such as Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, Wake, in recent weeks.
But district advocates have flatly denied that allegation. Indeed, NCASA says a recent statewide survey conducted by the organization indicates, with a few exceptions, that the vast majority of districts are in compliance with state law.
NCASA’s Joyce indicated as much in a late March letter to state senators, adding that any isolated exceptions did so because of insufficient funding, difficulty hiring teachers and a lack of class space.
“To say they are misusing the money, I think it’s a misinterpretation of what the law allows districts to do,” Joyce told Policy Watch this week.
Space, meanwhile, figures to be a major headache for school districts. Given the capital cost and the necessity for quick action, local school boards would most likely shift classrooms to trailers, officials say, long an unpopular option among K-12 leaders and parents.
Joyce calls the next few weeks “crunch time” for school districts preparing their budgets for the upcoming year. Without any clear action from Senate Republican leaders, who have mostly avoided any comment on the matter, districts facing major job losses will need to begin notifying teachers and T.A.s soon to give those affected their due process and time to appeal.
“It’s a difficult position our districts are in,” says Joyce. “They don’t want to initiate the pink slip process, but I think they’re coming to that crunch time where it’s going to become a reality. It’s going to be very difficult for them and individual teachers to navigate.”
Welborn says she’s spent recent days pleading with Senate Republicans to act, but she’s received no guarantees from some of the Senate’s most influential K-12 legislators, many of whom also did not respond to Policy Watch inquiries on the matter.
“To continue going down this road is not helping children,” says Welborn. “And that’s what we’re really talking about is doing what’s in the best interest of children. If you’re upset with us and you believe we’ve done wrong, I’m sorry and I apologize, but our true interest should be in providing the best education we can for our children.”
Time is running out, Welborn adds, and not just for her Guilford County district—for every school district in North Carolina.
“I am sure positions will be lost. Because we won’t have a choice.”