Despite GOP questioning, class-size legislation advances past House budget committee

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, sponsored the class-size fix.

Despite suggestions from some GOP members that local school districts may be misusing funded positions, a House budget committee gave its approval Thursday to legislation allaying a looming class-size crisis for North Carolina school districts.

Policy Watch reported in November that last year’s directive from the legislature to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 starting with the 2017-2018 academic year could have disastrous impacts for local districts, forcing them to spend millions more in local cash or shelve arts and physical education classes.

Public school advocates and lobbyists for the N.C. School Boards Association, which represents local boards in Raleigh, have been pressuring lawmakers to act quickly this session to resolve the problem, given local districts are already prepping their budgets for the coming school year.

“As I’m sure everybody in this room has, I’ve been beat up a lot over this class-size issue,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, a Republican representing Moore and Randolph counties.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady, pitched the draft bill as a solution to unintended consequences from last year’s legislative mandate to trim classes in the lower grades. However, a former financial analyst for the General Assembly told Policy Watch legislative leaders were briefed on the full implications when they began pushing smaller class sizes without additional state funding in 2015.

Last year’s budget scrapped flexibility for some crowded districts to exceed the funded average classroom sizes in grades K-3. Without additional dollars from state coffers, local school officials complained of far-reaching impacts, with at least one district warning they might have to reallocate resources in a way that would only increase class sizes in grades 4-12.

As state staff explained Thursday, the class-size order could have minimal impact in smaller districts, but would spell major financial consequences for some of the state’s largest school districts.

“There’s one school of thought that this is another strike against public schools,” Larry Cartner, superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, a rural district in northeastern North Carolina, told Policy Watch in November. “There’s another that the legislature didn’t know what it was doing. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

McGrady’s draft legislation would allow districts to surpass the state’s ordered average classroom size by no more than three students. Individual classes would not be allowed to surpass the funded class size by more than six students.

Officials pointed out that, considering the bill would only allow districts to retain the class size flexibility they already have, there would be no fiscal impact for the state. Districts would not be receiving any additional funds from the state.

Yet, despite bipartisan support for McGrady’s fix, the legislation weathered scrutiny from a handful of Republican committee members, some of whom implied Thursday that the problem was generated by districts misusing their funded positions.

“Are they wasting these positions in the office or doing special projects for the principal?” said McNeill. “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?”

Likewise, Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican representing counties in eastern North Carolina, also speculated districts were not using their funding properly.

However, NCSBA Director of Governmental Relations Leanne Winner told Policy Watch she’s unaware of any such instances in the state.

Winner said last year that the class-size directive moved toward a time when “specialty” courses such as the arts and P.E. were funded separately from the core subjects.

But with separate allocations no longer existing for specialty courses, these would likely be the courses to suffer should the legislature’s class-size rules go into effect in the next school year.

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe

Rep. Susan Fisher, a Buncombe County Democrat, applauded committee members Thursday, saying McGrady’s bill “moderates what would have been a worst-case scenario” for school districts. Fisher noted the rules would cost her school district roughly $4 million this year without action.

Fisher added that she hopes lawmakers will show similar flexibility when it comes time to draw up this year’s K-12 budget.

“I hope we don’t just keep ourselves frozen in place, in terms of making sure that we can accommodate the number of students that we have coming into the schools in North Carolina.”

McGrady says he hopes to put House Bill 13 up for a floor vote as soon as possible. It’s likely the bill would not be up for a vote before Tuesday. House Speaker Tim Moore said the chamber was not expecting to hold any votes when members reconvene Monday.

It’s unclear, meanwhile, whether Senate leadership is on board with the proposed legislation. A spokeswoman for Senate President Phil Berger’s office has not responded to Policy Watch inquiries on the bill.

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