In CMS, smaller K-3 classes will mean 200 more trailers and more crowding elsewhere

Students and parents participate in an April rally, held at the Halifax Mall in Raleigh, for a compromise on the class-size bill.
Students and parents participate in an April rally, held at the Halifax Mall in Raleigh, for a compromise on the class-size bill.

Note: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about the new maximum class size for third grade.

The clock is ticking for North Carolina’s Senate to revise a law that mandates smaller K-3 classes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders said Thursday. If change doesn’t come soon, they said, the district will have to budget $20 million to buy classroom trailers and start planning to reassign teachers.

Thursday’s pitch to almost a dozen state lawmakers was the first time CMS, the state’s second-largest district, has taken a strong public stand on an issue that’s been center stage for months in other districts, including Wake.

Millions of taxpayer dollars and the fate of students and teachers across North Carolina are at stake. And Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said a local budget deadline means his staff needs quick answers to avoid big costs. CMS urged legislators to act when they convene next week.

“This is a very, very complex problem. It will not be solved by CMS alone,” Wilcox said at a special breakfast meeting. “We absolutely need your help with it.”

The mandate for smaller classes in the youngest grades is designed to help children master reading by third grade, viewed as crucial to future academic success. But by locking in lower limits – for instance, third-grade classrooms would go from a maximum of 24 students to 20 – the state has created a need for more elementary school teachers and classrooms.

In CMS alone, the estimated cost for 353 more K-3 teachers is $23 million – money that has to either be added to the 2018-19 budget or shifted from somewhere else, such as eliminating other teacher jobs.

The option that has drawn the most public outrage – eliminating art, music, physical education and other “special” classes to create more regular K-3 classes – isn’t going to happen under Wilcox’s watch, he said. He called those classes as vital to young children’s education as social studies and science.

CMS NCGA breakfast
CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox talks to state Reps. Craig Horn, Rodney Moore, Becky Carney, John Autry and Kelly Alexander Jr. (l-r) about the challenges posed by a class-size cap in grades K-3. Ann Doss Helms

Instead, he said, the most likely response is to pack more kids into fourth- and fifth-grade classes, buy trailers to expand school capacity and reassign teachers, possibly including some who are now working in middle or high schools. Wilcox said a quick decision is crucial because CMS is preparing its 2018-19 budget, which must be presented to county officials by May 15.

And Wilcox said CMS can’t wait until the last minute if it has to buy and install 200 new trailers, which means committing millions of dollars and keeping dilapidated older mobile units in service longer.

Charles Jeter, governmental relations coordinator for CMS, said the bill could force another unpopular move: redrawing school boundaries. He cited the example of Elizabeth Lane Elementary, a suburban Matthews school with almost 1,100 students. The school would need 13 more classrooms to meet the state requirements, Jeter said, and the town of Matthews doesn’t allow trailers.

“The only way to solve that problem is reassigning students,” he said.

After the meeting school board member Sean Strain, who was elected in November to represent the south suburban district that includes Elizabeth Lane, said he’d like to see a revision that allows schools with high levels of reading proficiency to be exempted from the mandate. That would provide relief for crowded, high-performing schools such as Elizabeth Lane, where 90 percent of last year’s third-graders passed the reading exam.

But board Chair Mary McCray asked Strain not to present his plan until the full school board has had a chance to weigh in. State Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said she was disappointed that CMS didn’t offer any specific alternatives to what she called “the class-size debacle.”

“Is there another way?” Carney asked at the meeting’s conclusion. “We haven’t heard that from either side.”

The House has approved a bill that provides districts more flexibility, but the Senate has not. And Senate leaders have voiced reluctance to take the matter up this month.

The only senators at Thursday’s meeting were Republican Jeff Tarte and Democrat Joel Ford. Also present were Republican House members Bill Brawley and Craig Horn, and Democrats Kelly Alexander, John Autry, Chaz Beasley, Mary Belk, Becky Carney, Carla Cunningham and Rodney Moore.

Horn, a Union County representative who chairs two House education panels, said he agrees that changes are needed but disagrees that it’s now or never. Even if there’s no decision in January, he said, the General Assembly could reconvene in the spring.

“We can resolve this reasonably – maybe not ideally, but reasonably,” said Horn. “We’re going to resolve this, (but) probably not in January.”

Both sides agree the bill’s intent is good. Jeter, who described himself as “the grim reaper” in laying out worst-case scenarios, acknowledged that he voted for the original version when he was a state lawmaker, before resigning and taking the CMS job in 2016. Many legislators have said they didn’t understand all the consequences of mandating class-size limits.

As those consequences became clear, the class-size cap has drawn opposition from local school boards and PTAs across North Carolina. A group called Save Our Schools NC is holding a “Stop Class Size Chaos” rally in Raleigh on Saturday. Among the speakers is CMS teacher Justin Parmenter, who has been vocal about the need for change.

Thursday’s meeting between the CMS board and lawmakers was open to the public, as required by law. But CMS failed to provide the required 48 hours notice, instead sending a news release about the Thursday morning meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Jeter said he forgot about the public notice in the holiday transition.

A handful of advocates attended despite the late notice. Jessica Norman, who described herself as the only CMS parent in the audience, said she’s frustrated by both bodies: The state for passing the misguided class-size bill and the school board for denying her a chance to speak Thursday.

“As a parent of a CMS third-grader who spends several hours volunteering within the school each week, I saw this as an opportunity to put a face to the legislative decisions that will directly affect my children and my community,” she wrote in a Facebook post that includes an open letter to legislators. “The only message I got from this meeting is that children should be seen and not heard, and the same applies to CMS parents.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms