Parents, teachers and students demanded Wednesday that state lawmakers pass legislation that they say would prevent thousands of potential teacher layoffs and cuts in art, music and physical education classes in North Carolina elementary schools.
Leaders of school districts across the state say arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state legislators lowered maximum class sizes for kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students. The mandate, passed in 2016, takes effect in 2017-18.
A couple hundred people who rallied on the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh said the Senate needs to quickly approve House Bill 13, which school officials say would allow them to save arts and PE classes.
“I never thought I’d be pushed out of my career,” Dawn McCormick-Dahm, an art teacher at Highcroft Drive Elementary School in Cary, said at the rally. “Although our state has a budget surplus and my students love to learn in my classroom, I am told that my position may no longer be funded.”
“I have cried. I have made phone calls, written emails and stood outside senators’ doors.”
Although the state is demanding more K-3 teachers, it’s not providing the money.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders say requiring smaller classes would force the district to find $23.3 million to add 353 K-3 teachers, as well as possibly having to add mobile classrooms. That would mean dramatically increasing its request to the county – Superintendent Ann Clark’s proposal seeks a $27 million increase which doesn’t include the K-3 expansion – or making cuts elsewhere.
Clark hasn’t yet offered details of how she’ll approach that dilemma, but her counterpart in Wake County has. This week Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill said options such as increasing class sizes for older students, cutting art and music classes, laying off teachers and reassigning students are on the table. He said Wake might also have to put as many as 40 students in K-3 classrooms with two teachers to try to comply with the new state requirements.
Many school districts have supported HB13, which would reduce K-3 class sizes to as little as 22 students. Merrill said Wake would need $1.8 million more to hire 32 additional teachers if HB13 passes compared to $26 million more and 460 extra teachers if the new rules go into effect.
The bill was unanimously approved by the House in February. But the legislation has stalled in the Senate, where some legislators have questioned how state money meant for reducing class sizes has been used.
Clark said CMS has a little more breathing room because the district has fewer year-round schools than Wake. Staffing decisions for those schools – including four in CMS that start classes in July – have to be locked in earlier.
But Charles Jeter, a former state representative from Mecklenburg who now works as the CMS government liaison, urged CMS families and supporters to contact their state senators to support HB13, calling it “of paramount importance.”
“Without swift action by the Senate, school districts across the state will have to look for unpopular and unpleasant solutions for this (state)-created problem,” Jeter said Wednesday.
The liberal N.C. Justice Center says hiring the 3,000 to 5,400 new teachers needed to meet the new class sizes will cost school districts as much as $388 million more per year in operating costs as well as significant capital costs.
Some Republican senators agree that action is needed to help school districts.
Freshman Sen. Rick Horner filed Senate Bill 541 that would keep maximum K-3 class sizes at 24 students and require extra pay for teachers whose classrooms exceed the size limit. Horner says his legislation is better than HB13, but both bills are stuck in the Senate Rules Committee.
“When everybody calms down we’ll get this figured out,” said Horner, a Wilson County Republican and former school board member for Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools.