Class size requirements could mean trouble, RSS warns

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 14, 2017

SALISBURY — Things look grim for the upcoming school year because of new class size requirements. At the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education’s Monday business meeting, Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon reported on the district’s progress to meet strict requirements for kindergarten through third-grade classes.

“We have recently passed over the first hurdle of the new class size requirements,” Herndon said.

Passed with the state budget in 2016, the requirements prohibit kindergarten classes from having more than 20 students. First-, second- and third-grade classes face similar restrictions.

“This has been a little bit of a moving target,” Herndon said.

After pushback from school districts across the state, the Department of Public Instruction amended the requirement, giving a softer target for the 2017-18 school year and agreeing not to enforce the hard line until the 2018-19 year.

“It was basically a way for DPI to address the issue without changing their requirements, if that makes sense,” Herndon said.

But it means that “the game gets a whole lot steeper” in the coming school year, as the difficulties schools will have to face won’t change with a past deadline.

“We could be facing a deficit of more than 30 or 40 teachers next year to meet the more aggressive class size requirements,” Herndon said.

Those extra positions have not been funded by the state, meaning districts like Rowan-Salisbury will have to scramble to find room in their budgets. According to Herndon, that would amount to roughly $2.5 million for Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

The state is also still in the middle of a teacher shortage.

“We have a teacher crisis right now. … The biggest question is not gonna be toward our budget, it’s gonna be where are all these people going to come from? Because they’re not out there. … I can’t imagine what this summer’s going to look like for us,” Superintendent Lynn Moody said.

Districts across the state are also scrambling to find mobile units, since most schools don’t have the ability to add classrooms.

And it doesn’t look like the General Assembly will consider the issue in time to spare schools the trouble. If it gets brought up in May, most districts will have already started hiring for the next school year, secured mobile units and passed budgets.

“And quite honestly, it’s too late for us,” Moody said. “… We want you to know how serious it is, so that when we’re crying, ‘We have no money, and no positions and no teachers’ — this class size is going to be extremely challenging for us this spring.”

Board Chairman Josh Wagner asked if it is possible to get class size comparisons for other districts and charter schools. He also said he thinks it is important for districts to speak out about the struggles they face in the coming year.

“A lot of people hear ‘class size reduction’ and automatically assume that’s positive,” he said.

Board member Richard Miller said the issue isn’t that the board and districts are opposed to smaller classes; it is the lack of funding that is the problem.

“That’s the bottom-line issue,” he said.

Moody said most districts have three options to fund the harsher requirements for the 2018-19 school year: increase middle and high school class sizes by eliminating teachers; get rid of elective and enhancement courses such as art, music and PE; or cut locally funded prekindergarten programs.

“So those are about the only three options that you have,” Moody said.

Board member Dean Hunter wanted to know if it is possible to put together “some type of document” to inform legislators.

“Just send something formal to them to say, ‘This is what your brilliance has imposed upon us.’ So they at least acknowledge on a local level. … The effect it’s having on us,” he said.

Other board members agreed that something should be sent to legislators. But for now, those decisions could wait.

“We’ve dealt with it this year the best we could, but next year is where the rubber really meets the road of where we go,” Moody said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.