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K-3 class sizes to change under HB 13

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By Lindsay Kriz

BELVILLE — North Carolina public schools, including those in Brunswick County, will see a reduction in class sizes for grades K-3 come fall, though not as drastically as first expected.

Signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on April 27, House Bill 13 is touted as a compromise that continues reducing elementary school class sizes over the next two years while addressing local concerns about special subject-area teachers in the classroom.

Brunswick County Schools will begin to phase in the mandatory class-size reductions in grades K-3 during the 2017-18 school year.

District spokeswoman Jessica Swencki said the district is required to maintain class-sizes K-3 of 20 students, with a three-student increase option after the end of the second month, during 2017-18.

The district is then required to fully implement the class-size reductions in 2018-19 for all grades. At the end of the second month, individual classes can all have an additional three students, she said.

Swencki said 32 teaching positions were funded in the 2017-18 budget to implement class-size reductions for K-3, but because there are no new dollars available to fund these positions, the district had to redirect existing funds and opted to return elementary literacy teachers to classroom positions.

These (32) positions will come from re-purposing existing positions in the district,” Swencki said in an email. “Elementary literacy teachers (who were focusing on small group reading interventions within schools) will be returning to classroom teaching positions and 20 teacher assistant positions will be absorbed from retirements and resignations and converted to teaching positions.

“To balance the needs of the schools, there will be the need to transfer teacher assistants to other schools within the county. We are fortunate that no teacher assistants will be subject to a reduction in force (RIF).” 

While many raised worries about cuts to art, music and physical education programs as a result of the new requirements, Swencki said the district never considered reductions in those or other resource or elective programs.

“The current state budget does not specifically provide funding for resource/elective classes such as art, music or PE,” she said. “In BCS we have been very clear that even though state funds are not specifically directed to these areas, that we will continue to fund these positions. There was never a discussion of reduction of these positions in BCS to meet the class-size reduction requirements.”

One school that will inevitably see adjustments is Belville Elementary School, the district’s largest elementary school with 812 students as of April 26, principal Dr. Rick Hessman said.

Swencki said as a result of HB 13, Belville will receive four new additional teaching positions for the 2017-18 school year. She said Hessman, will have to, within his entire allocation, ensure there are a sufficient number of classrooms for the upcoming school year, which may mean relocated staff within the building.

“This is a similar process each year based on the school’s enrollment,” Swencki said.

Like other schools, Belville Elementary will convert its two traditional computer lab spaces into classrooms to accommodate students, and will also receive a modular unit as an additional classroom.

Until students actually arrive this fall, Swencki said, it’s difficult to know how many additional K-3 classes will be needed at the school.

 “While I cannot speak for other school systems, they are having the same conversations we were about how to meet the requirements,” she said. “One way state leaders could address the concern of losing these electives/resources in systems is to specifically allocate funding for them ... this would require a change in the existing state budget.”

Before Cooper signed HB 13, tension and uncertainty about what changes would need to be made to each school was palpable, said Emily Donovan, who has children attending Belville Elementary and volunteers within the school as president of its Parent Advisory Council. 

The House passed the bill unanimously Feb. 16. On Feb. 20 it was sent to the Rules and Operations of the Senate Committee, of which Sen. Bill Rabon is chairman. Swencki said superintendent Les Tubb had spoken with Rabon about HB 13 sometime between late January, when budget conversations start, and last week.

The bill remained within the committee, its future uncertain, until April 21 when it was withdrawn from the Rule and Operations of the Senate Committee and re-referred to the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee. It was during that two-month timeframe of HB 13 being stalled when Donovan decided it was time to reach out to Rabon for answers.

“When you pull stunts like stalling HB 13 in the senate and forcing teachers to wonder, I guarantee you (a lot) of teachers have said, ‘I don’t know if I can stomach this anymore, if I can stomach the low funding, the lack of support, the lack of leadership at the state level,’” Donovan said. “It makes teachers want to leave the sector, leave the education sector completely.

“That’s a problem, because we’re not dealing in widgets. When you deal in education, you’re dealing with humanity,” she said. “The output is emotional, it requires more finesse, and you need to understand that your teachers require a certain level of dignity and respect for the job they do.”

Donovan called Rabon’s office April 19 and spoke with legislative staff member Paula Fields for about 15 to 20 minutes. Donovan said Fields told her Rabon had met with enough constituents on HB 13 and that he was no longer meeting with anyone about the bill.

When reached by phone Monday, Fields disputed Donovan’s claim, saying, “No one said that to the parent. We probably said that the bill, that it was still in the House and the Senate wasn’t hearing House bills at the time. We were waiting for crossover. I will not be quoted on this, and I am ending this conversation.”

 “That’s a huge constituency base you would want to talk to about this issue,” Donovan said. “So if you’re not even reaching out to the 800 babies that have parents in this area, that’s a problem.”

Ultimately, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Wilmington, David Curtis of Denver and Chad Barefoot of Raleigh proposed changes to the bill that would be implemented over the next two school years, according to a news release from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. The release said a bipartisan North Carolina Senate on April 25 passed HB 13, which was The compromise is supported both by authors of the original House bill and the North Carolina Association of School Administrators.

The Brunswick County school district is set to begin its fall semester Monday, Aug. 28.

Lindsay Kriz is a staff writerfor the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email lkriz@brunswickbeacon.com.