Education

Impact on Charlotte unclear as NC schools say they may cut arts, PE to meet class limits

Third graders play during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary on Nov. 22, 2016. School leaders say reducing class sizes to meet new state limits will force them to consider options such as cutting physical education and arts classes, raising class sizes in upper grades and asking counties to pick up the tab.
Third graders play during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary on Nov. 22, 2016. School leaders say reducing class sizes to meet new state limits will force them to consider options such as cutting physical education and arts classes, raising class sizes in upper grades and asking counties to pick up the tab. cseward@newsobserver.com

School systems around North Carolina are warning they may have to cut arts and physical education programs in elementary schools this fall if state lawmakers don’t back off on new limits that would make class sizes smaller.

State legislators reduced how large class sizes can be starting this fall in kindergarten through third grade. But school leaders say finding the money and teachers to staff the smaller classes will force them to consider options such as cutting the arts, raising class sizes in other grades and asking counties to pick up the tab.

The state mandate could require an additional $27 million in local money to keep the special programs in Wake County, according to Wake school board member Bill Fletcher.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out how we can continue to provide great arts services for our elementary schools,” Fletcher said. “We’re working to undo this change because we believe most of the legislators who supported this didn’t understand the unintentional consequences of what they thought was a good decision.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials said Thursday the changes would require 353 additional teacher positions, at a cost of just over $23 million. No one from the district was available to say whether options for finding that money have been discussed, and the school board has not started public talks on the 2017-18 budget.

The changes are also fueling fears among some teachers that they may be laid off.

“Our teachers are scared to death about their jobs and their livelihood,” said James Daugherty, president of the N.C. Music Educators Association. “It’s unnerving.”

Even some lawmakers admit that they didn’t realize the problems that could occur when the class-size changes were inserted into the state budget last year by Senate leaders. Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and House education leader, said lawmakers were more focused on issues such as teacher pay raises, so the impact of the class size changes didn’t get as much review.

“It was not as fully thought through with regard to unintended consequences,” Horn said. “So now we’ve got a chance to straighten it out and still have lower class sizes.”

What lawmakers did, starting in the 2017-18 school year, is lower maximum K-3 class sizes for school districts and individual classes. Maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level. The maximum average class sizes for school districts would be even lower.

School districts have been using the higher class size limits to free up state dollars to fund programs such as arts and physical education.

Smaller class sizes are considered to be better because they allow teachers to give more attention to each student. School leaders complain, though, that the new round of state changes didn’t come with any additional money.

“It’s as though someone thought of this great idea but didn’t see how this would affect real people when it was implemented,” said Daugherty, who is also instructional program specialist for fine arts and distance learning for Davidson County schools.

Districts have been determining how many additional teachers they’ll need to reduce class sizes while still maintaining their art, music and PE programs.

It could require an additional 460 teachers in Wake, which would be the equivalent of 12 additional elementary schools. Fletcher, the school board member, said Wake also might have to resort to steps such as putting up dividers so that two teachers can use the same room.

“There’s lots of issues that this seemingly straightforward budget change are creating for us locally,” Fletcher said.

Amid the complaints, the House passed a bill in the December special session to reduce the extent of the K-3 class size changes. But the Senate did not act on the bill.

School districts and education groups are lobbying lawmakers to act on the issue soon, because planning will begin in the spring for the 2017-18 school year.

“This is something that can’t wait until our state budget comes this summer,” said Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators. “We need our lawmakers to act now.”

A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said the Republican caucus will need to review the issue and discuss the feedback received from local school districts.

Horn, the state lawmaker, said he thinks the Senate just ran out of time to act in December. He thinks the Senate is willing to find a good resolution to the issue this session.

“The concept of lowering class size, every one of us I think would support it,” he said. “But we have to balance the practical reality of it.

“Do we have the ability to find the teachers to do the job and find the money for it without cannibalizing other parts of instruction, and do we have the ability to find the space?”

Charlotte Observer staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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