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Class size omnibus passes easily, despite stiff opposition to Board of Elections, Atlantic Coast Pipeline provisions

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

An omnibus bill alleviating some of the headaches [1] associated with North Carolina’s class size crisis easily passed the state House by a 104-12 margin Tuesday, despite continuing opposition from top Democrats on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Board of Elections provisions.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who helped to assemble last week’s compromise conference report on House Bill 90, said the bill gives districts “much requested” time to prepare for the state’s new K-3 class sizes by phasing in its caps on average and maximum class size over the next four years.

The legislation, which also creates a $61 million recurring funding allocation for arts, music and physical education teachers, comes after years of mounting pressure on the Republican-dominated General Assembly to either ease their 2016 class size mandate or provide additional funding to save those so-called “enhancement” teaching positions.

As Policy Watch has detailed, local school districts would need to cough up millions or lay off scores of enhancement teachers to find space for the necessary new K-3 classroom teachers.

The legislation also modifies eligibility requirements for the GOP-backed, controversial Personal Education Savings Accounts and purports to provide sufficient funding to clear the waiting list for the state’s widely-backed, Pre-K program.

Multiple Republicans insisted this week and last that the revised House Bill 90, which was crafted behind closed doors, was a “bipartisan” measure.

“We do not have to be separated on this,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, the Cabarrus County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s education and budget committees.

Yet, while many Democrats ultimately voted for the conference report [2] because of its class size fix, some components of the omnibus bill clearly rankled minority party members in the House and Senate.

One section seeks to control spending from a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a fund that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office seeks to administer (Note: See the report today [3] from Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg on the ACP).

Also, a separate portion seeks to merge state elections and ethics panels while curtailing Democrats’ majority on the appointed elections board. The N.C. Supreme Court struck down Republicans’ merger of the panels last month [4], and GOP lawmakers are seeking to author their own fix before it’s taken up by a lower court.

“This is a difficult vote to take, and it’s difficult because we’re voting on three separate matters,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who dubbed the package a “kitchen sink bill.”

Democrats also chafed over a lack of school construction funding in the measure.

“This bill does not address the needs in education that we know, Republicans and Democrats both know, are so necessary right now,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Legislative Republicans countered that K-12 infrastructure is historically a local government funding matter in North Carolina. However, state House members have widely supported a statewide $2 billion school construction bond referendum, which would address a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in K-12 capital needs, but Senate lawmakers have not taken up the matter.

“Like in all bills, there’s always more work to be done,” said Horn. “I’m looking forward to your support on that more work.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill will now proceed to Cooper’s office. Cooper seems likely to veto the bill due to its pipeline and elections portions, although the legislature has the votes to override the Democrat’s veto.

Some Democrats suggested Tuesday that, with state courts still deciding the fate of the legislature’s election board tinkering, the class size fix could be “held hostage” by the legal wrangling.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader, said the lack of a severability clause may nix the entire bill if courts find one portion unconstitutional, although a longtime General Assembly attorney cast doubt on that claim this week.

Meanwhile, top Republicans like Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County lawmaker and longtime budget writer, called House Bill 90 a “historic” moment for the legislature because of its support for a class size fix and Pre-K funding.

The proposal’s class size component had the backing of many top public school advocates, such as the N.C. Association of School Administrators, which helped to negotiate the deal.

NCAE President Mark Jewell

But the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which lobbies for K-12 teachers in Raleigh, has criticized lawmakers for tying the relief to other, more controversial mandates.

“The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell in a statement last week. “This doesn’t address the other class size challenges in higher grades, and it doesn’t provide funding for much needed school construction which many local districts will find a significant challenge.  While it ends a Pre-K waiting list, which is good, it’s unfortunate that this class size bill had to be politicized with other controversial legislation around the gas pipeline, state board of elections and expansion of a new private school voucher scheme.”