Guilford County Schools spent about $8 million to meet the state’s K-3 mandate to reduce class size for this school year.
The majority — about $7.7 million — is pay for additional teachers and teacher assistants. That part is about $1 million more than budgeted, due to higher-than-expected K-3 enrollment this year, Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry said Saturday. They paid for the difference with contingency funds for unexpected enrollment increases.
They also spent about $205,000 to bring a mobile unit to Morehead Elementary. The rest of the $8 million estimate is for professional development, central office staff planning time and furniture.
Chief of Schools Tony Watlington said at last week’s school board meeting that as of Nov. 3, the district had all K-3 classes below the 24-student limit. The district class size ratio was 19.80 students to 1 teacher, he said, just a hair under the 20-to-1 limit.
The state checked the district’s compliance just a few days before that.
At that time, all K-3 classes were under the individual class limit of 24 students, except for one class at Nathanael Greene Elementary School. One new student enrolled that day, pushing a kindergarten class over the limit. The school fixed it the next day by creating a combination class — that means a class that has students from multiple grade levels.
Keeping classes strictly beneath the limit is both costly and tricky, school officials said, given space issues, staffing challenges and the way students come and go from schools.
Schools staff worked to develop a new procedure to deal with class size overages. In the past, there have been some examples of classes that were not addressed quickly and thus remained above the maximum.
Under the new procedure, Watlington reviews class size numbers daily and chief officers meet weekly to review class size numbers and address issues.
If a class goes over, the possible corrections include bringing in a new teacher to make a new class, creating a combination class or instituting a team teaching model.
Another possibility is the school board could vote to apply for a waiver from the state. Out of 69 elementary schools in the district, 24 could qualify for a waiver on the basis of a more than 2 percent unexpected increase in student population.
Guilford County Schools did not apply for any waivers last year and has not applied for any yet this year, but Watlington said they may consider recommending waivers at some of these schools if they see additional growth that overwhelms class size limits.
Next year, school leaders expect class size limits to drop again, based on provisions of the class-size law expected to go into effect in 2018-19. They expect to need to hire another 400 to 500 teachers.
N.C. Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) has said lowering class sizes has been a top priority for the Senate, because of what he said is research showing it leads to more improved academic outcomes for students.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras has repeatedly stressed this isn’t how she’d prefer to spend the district’s money.
And School Board Chairman Alan Duncan and board member Linda Welborn both emphatically disagreed on Thursday that research shows the mandate would bring improved results.
“The giant sucking sound we are all hearing right now is $8 million dollars being flushed down the toilet,” Duncan said. He said he thinks state lawmakers were well-intentioned, but wrong on this.
Welborn said one of the ways they cut the 2017-18 budget to make room for increased expenditures like this mandate was to increase class sizes at the middle school level.
And among other ongoing and potential challenges with the mandate, Welborn suggested the district is likely to struggle to recruit 400 to 500 new, qualified elementary teachers for next year.
“I just have a real problem with the state forcing us to do something that’s having a terrible impact on our children actually, because just reducing class sizes is nothing in comparison to the negative impacts this bill will have on children in a multitude of ways,” Welborn said.
School leaders are hoping the state may come through with some funding to help districts compensate elementary music, P.E. and similar teachers. That could free up some money to help with the cost of the class size decreases next year. In the meantime, district leaders continue to worry that the financial cost of reducing class sizes could make for a difficult spring budget season.