The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district has started contingency planning in case the N.C. General Assembly doesn’t pass a bill that would give schools relief from impending class size reductions.
The district will keep any teacher assistants hired from now until the end of the school year on temporary employee rolls in an effort to avoid layoffs over the summer. If the state mandate on smaller class sizes kicks in, district leaders say they might be forced to cut some teacher assistant positions for next school year in order to keep offering art, music and physical education classes.
“We currently have legislation … that, when passed, overlooked the fact that regular teacher allotments do not separate out art, music, PE,” said Superintendent Beverly Emory. “Our board agreed and we’ve said from the get-go that we’re not laying off teachers; we’re not doing away with those programs.”
Cutting some teacher assistants next school year is one strategy the district is considering, Emory said, to deal with the class size reduction that would require the district to hire “as many as 200 additional teaching positions… with no additional funding.”
By keeping any assistants hired from now until the end of the year on temps, Emory said the district hopes it could handle a teacher assistant reduction through attrition and not layoffs.
“In order not to lay someone off, it’s easier not to employ them,” she said.
Bill in committee
School districts were initially hopeful that lawmakers would amend a provision in last year’s budget bill that could require districts to hire hundreds more kindergarten through third grade teachers and put art, music and physical education classes in jeopardy, but that hope is fading as districts start budgeting for next school year and a proposal to offer some relief has stalled.
After passing the House last month, House Bill 13 has languished in the Senate’s Rules and Operations committee. The bill, which would give school districts flexibility from potentially crippling class size requirements in kindergarten through third grades, has yet to be placed on the committee’s calendar for consideration. The committee’s chair, Brunswick County Republican Bill Rabon, hasn’t responded to questions about the bill’s future.
One of the bill’s main sponsors didn’t sound optimistic about its chances.
“I know the Senate understands the problem we’re trying to address with (HB13),” Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said Wednesday. “Senators with whom I’ve spoken are quick to note that the state has already paid for the class size reductions and the school boards used those monies on other things.
“I hope that we don’t worry about where the blame lies, but try to provide some transition for the school boards to get the class size reductions. I’ve told senators that (HB13) is not a take-it-or-leave-it bill.”
McGrady said he’s open “to another solution to the problem if they’ve got one.”
The problem is that the state gives school districts money for classroom teachers, but doesn’t have a special allotment for other types of teachers — like those who teach art, music and physical education. In order to offer those programs — and give classroom teachers a planning period — districts use flexibility in current class size requirements. Instead of hiring one classroom teacher for every 18 students in kindergarten through third grade — as the state funds them — districts make larger classes and uses the extra dollars to hire art, music and gym teachers.
Right now, state law allows districts to create k-3 classes as large as 24, provided the district’s grade level average stays at or below 21 students. There are not class size limits for other grades.
A provision of last year’s budget bill would strip that flexibility and require districts meet strict class size requirements: 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grades.
Because this change comes with no additional funds, school districts across the state have said they may have to cut programs like art, music and gym if the law takes effect as written.
McGrady and three other co-sponsors put forth HB13 with the hopes that districts wouldn’t have to make that tough choice.
Pause on hiring
Now, though, the bill has stalled and school districts are in the middle of planning budgets for next school year. Emory said the district needs to plan as though the class size reduction will take effect. A committee has been convened to study the issue — how to meet the requirements without cutting art, music and gym; where to put all the additional classes and how to find as many as 200 more teachers when the district has had around 50 vacancies all year long.
Cutting some teacher assistants for next year is one strategy the district is considering, Emory said.
Currently, the district hires all of its teacher assistants through Carolina Placement, Inc., — a temporary employment agency. Assistants are hired through the temp agency, work as temporary employees for a 90-day probationary period after which principals can choose to hire them on full time. The district will put a “pause” on that hiring for the rest of current school year. Anyone brought on as a teacher assistant for the remainder of the school year will stay on the temp rolls. As such, those employees will not have access to full employee benefits. That way, if assistant positions are cut next year, the district will not have to lay off full-time employees.
The district’s Board of Education approved the move at its meeting Tuesday night.
“We hope this is taken up in the Senate,” said Dana Jones, the board’s chair. Jones encouraged community members to reach out to their representatives and explain the impact the class size reduction will have. “Hopefully they’ll take that up, and take it up soon, so we’ll know where we stand.”
A teacher assistant reduction will not cover the entire expense of hiring the additional teachers needed to meet the new state requirements. Should the General Assembly come to an agreement on a fix, the district could lift the pause on hiring teacher assistants.