News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Former DPI budget chief says N.C. school districts may have to “beg” again next year for class size funding

North Carolina school districts may have obtained something of a reprieve from state lawmakers’ controversial class size mandate this year, but the longtime budget chief for the state’s top public school agency says schools seem likely to face a similar crisis next spring.

“They’re going to have to come back again and beg next year,” says Philip Price, who retired in February after three decades in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), where he was a key leader in developing the state’s K-12 budget.

Price addressed a gathering of education reporters and policy advocates Monday as part of a seminar on the state’s class-size challenges convened by the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative.

State lawmakers reached a deal on the looming class-size crisis in April, as districts warned thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers were at risk of losing their jobs without state action.

Legislators have ordered school districts to trim class sizes in K-3, with the stiffest reduction demands scheduled to take effect in 2018-2019. Policy Watch first reported on the issue last November.

On Monday, Price lobbed a few barbs at GOP budget writers, who complained multiple times this year that school districts have not been forthcoming in how they spend their state dollars.

“I have no idea why legislators are saying they can’t get reliable info,” said Price.

Price said lawmakers seemed “shocked and appalled” when school leaders explained this year that they would face major funding issues without state action, despite, he says, previous explanations of the looming issue by DPI officials.

“They didn’t like the department’s answers,” Price said. “They didn’t like their fiscal staff’s answers. They wanted a different answer.”

As Price explained Monday, the class size problem developed after state leaders acted in 1995 to do away with separate funding allotments for core classroom teachers and “specialty” teachers. Now, with state K-12 leaders lacking the necessary funding for public schools, districts have been forced to resort to “creative” means of maintaining school services, he said.

In some cases, that means transferring funds and relying on previously-granted class size flexibility in order to maintain arts and P.E. teachers not receiving their own funding allotment.

Without additional cash, districts say they would need to clear specialty positions in order to make room for more “core” subject teachers under the legislature’s class size plan. Along with the new teachers, districts would likely be forced to spend many millions to expand infrastructure to accommodate the new classrooms.

Wake County school board member Kathy Hartenstine

Wake County Board of Education member Kathy Hartenstine told reporters Monday the cost for Wake County Public School System (WCPSS)—the state’s largest public school district—would be “astronomical” next year.

The district would need to add more than 400 new teachers under next year’s class size directive, she said, in addition to the millions of dollars in spending needed to add classroom space.

“How in the world are we going to pay for these additional teachers?” Hartenstine said. “I worry about this. Am I going to have to be a board member who says we can’t have (specialty teachers) anymore?”

State lawmakers say they plan to use data gathered this year to assess districts’ needs for specialty teachers, with plans to mull a new funding allocation for the positions next year.

Rural and poor districts would face a different set of issues, considering their well-documented struggles in recruiting and retaining experienced teachers.

However, state lawmakers have offered no written promises on providing additional funding, despite warnings that districts may again be forced to consider laying off thousands of teaching positions next year.

Price said lawmakers should consider a new allotment for specialty teachers and boost the state’s overall spending for public schools, a longtime demand from K-12 advocates. This year, the state’s per-pupil spending dropped from 42nd to 43rd in a nonpartisan national ranking.

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