Class size change sputters, limit on AG's Office rolls as legislature goes late
Posted October 4
Updated October 5
Raleigh, N.C. — A bid to roll back coming class size mandates that the Wake County school system has said will force it to move students to other schools never got the support it needed to move forward Wednesday as the General Assembly tossed more than a dozen tweaks, changes and outright policy shifts into a multi-pronged amendment to the state budget.
A $200,000 study of a new soccer stadium proposed for downtown Raleigh, funding favored by the House, also fell by the wayside because Senate leaders were unwilling to back it. The Senate also shot down the class size language, which would have allowed the average class in kindergarten through third grade to be three students larger than the 16- to 18-per-teacher limit laid out in reforms set to take effect next year.
Concerns over redistricting and the need to build new schools to comply have some systems and parents pushing for relief from those reforms. State Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, who stood firm on the smaller size mandates Wednesday, said he hopes the requirement will help build public support for a statewide school bond proposal that's been kicked around at the statehouse and would require voter approval.
"We've got $8 billion worth of needs out there, but you've got to put a lot of things together at one time to get one of those," said Tillman, a retired school administrator.
The House had pushed for the class size and the soccer stadium language as part of a "technical corrections" bill that leapfrogs through the state budget and other portions of state code, making changes to work legislators did during their regular session earlier this year. The bill that emerged after a day of back and forth between the two chambers is Senate Bill 582, which runs 22 pages.
In it, both the House and the Senate backed language meant to keep Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein's office from delegating work to local district attorneys in response to budget cuts at his office. Democrats cried foul over the language, just as they did over the $10 million budget cut the Republican majority approved for Stein's office earlier this year.
Stein cut 45 positions just to cover a portion of that reduction, and he planned to have local district attorneys handle some of the criminal appeals work his office typically manages. The bill forbids him from delegating that work and includes no new funding for the Attorney General's Office.
The bill also addresses a salary issue for long-time principals. The state is moving to a system that ties their pay in part to student test scores instead of longevity, and some experienced principals stood to lose more than $10,000 a year from their salaries because a grandfather clause has run out. The bill extends that grandfather through the current fiscal year.
The bill also does away with a 2020 sunset on the state's Film & Entertainment Grant program, which is meant to draw movie and television shows to North Carolina. Another bill section changes the rules for expert testimony in driving while impaired cases, something at least two legislators said was a big enough change that it did not belong in a bill marked "technical corrections."
"This is a substantive change to the law," said state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
The legislation passed the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday night, 35-29, with nearly all Democrats voting against it, four Republicans breaking ranks to cast no votes and a number of committee members absent. Republicans who explained their no votes complained about process or inclusion of the film grant extension, which was nestled deeply enough into the bill that a number of people initially overlooked it.
"Well, that's not veto-proof," House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said after the vote.
The bill moves now to the House and Senate floors, where legislators are expected to vote it through to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature or veto. Because the bill was negotiated by House and Senate leaders as part of a conference committee, the multi-faceted legislation can no longer be amended, only voted up or down as is.
Correction: This story has been amended to clarify when the grandfather clause on principal pay ran out.