Law reducing class size has music, art, PE teachers anxious about future

Posted April 5

— As state lawmakers work to make class sizes smaller, many art, music and PE teachers are fearing for the future as their jobs may be put on the chopping block.

Hope Brooks is a music teacher at Briarcliff Elementary School in Cary. Her husband, Greg, is a physical education teacher at the school. Both are worried that they could soon be out of a job.

“I have no idea what the future holds,” Hope Brooks said. “I think the fear of not knowing, the uncertainty, is making everyone very anxious.”

Next year, state law requires schools across North Carolina to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Kindergarten classes, for example, would have to shrink from a maximum of 24 students to 19.

To accommodate the change, there could be cuts to teachers in non-core subjects, such as PE, music, art and foreign languages.

“I think that is devastating to imagine what that would look like,” Hope Brooks said. “I think it is so important for kids to have PE, art and music and just extra-curricular activities.”

School districts have traditionally had some flexibility to make their average class size slightly larger than the size state officials use to calculate how many teachers to fund for each district. Local school officials have used that flexibility to create and pay for teaching positions in non-core areas and to help delay the need to build new classrooms when enrollment is higher than expected.

But the 2016-17 state budget requires all teachers funded by state allotment to teach in core areas, starting in the 2017-18 school year, and puts a hard cap on K-3 class sizes, which would require many districts to add classrooms – either through mobile units, new construction or repurposing gymnasiums and other areas.

In Wake County, Superintendent Jim Merrill estimates the class size change would cost his district $26 million and create a need for more classroom space.

“[We’re] waiting and hoping the legislature comes through with a solution that will not be hard on our employees or cost more money,” he said.

In February, the House passed House Bill 13, which would add some flexibility to the impending class size law. At the moment, that legislation is stalled in the Senate.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, co-chair of the Senate Education/Higher Education committee, says lowering class size is a priority.

"For years, the General Assembly has been sending tens of millions of dollars to districts for new classroom teachers for the purpose of lowering classroom sizes," he said. "The question we keep asking over and over again is, 'What did they do with the money?'"

Lawmakers requested financial data from school districts in the state and are analyzing it to try to get that answer.

"The data that we have received from the districts varies, and some districts did not fully respond to our information request," Barefoot said. "What some of the data has shown is that there are districts that did not reduce class sizes with the funding we sent them. Why are they holding art and PE teachers’ jobs hostage for their misallocation of classroom teacher funds?"

Barefoot has not revealed which school districts he believes used state money incorrectly.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, says small class sizes are an important goal, "but you can’t do it haphazardly and without educator input."

"Senate Republicans are using public school students and teachers as political pawns because they have an axe to grind with a few local school districts," Jewell said. "The House knows the importance of 4,500 music, arts, physical education, and world language teachers and teacher assistants because they passed House Bill 13 unanimously weeks ago."

For Hope and Greg Brooks, the issue is not political, but their family is praying the changes can be made without sacrificing their life’s work.

“Smaller class sizes are obviously a good thing. I support smaller class sizes,” Hope Brooks said. “(But) I feel like, if they don’t have these programs anymore, they are going to miss out and it breaks my heart.”

As for Wake County schools, if the class size rules are not relaxed, the superintendent said he may have some tough decisions to make.


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