Class size omnibus gets first vote

Posted February 9, 2018 4:11 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:48 p.m. EDT

— The state Senate voted 37-5 Friday in favor of a bill that would delay scheduled reductions in elementary school class sizes. Some Democrats voted against the measure because it includes unrelated provisions aimed at scoring political points against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

House Bill 90, presented as a "budget technical corrections" bill, came to the floor as a conference report, which means it cannot be amended. It was unveiled Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before its preliminary approval.

The proposal would phase in mandated class size reductions over four years, with a pause for 2018-19. It also includes about $60 million a year for "enhancement" teachers in subjects such as art, music, physical education and foreign languages. However, it also specifies that only those dedicated state funds can be used for such teachers.

The measure also pledges full funding of all needed pre-kindergarten slots by 2021.

"This is a bill for our children – our children," said Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake. "This bill gives us a reasonable pathway to smaller class sizes."

"This is thoughtful, it’s deliberate, it's measured, it’s something we should all be supportive of," agreed Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson.

More Democrats voted for the bill than against it. Many, however, said Republicans had made that difficult for them by including partisan provisions unrelated to class size.

One section takes control of the $57.8 million Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation fund away from Cooper's office, distributing it instead to the schools in the eight counties traversed by the pipeline.

Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, said the proposal gives to her district with one hand and takes with the other. She said the mitigation fund was intended in part for economic development in her community.

"It is a false choice, and it is messy, and it is unfair to tie all of this into a class-size fix," Smith argued.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, suggested that lawmakers could be doing the governor a favor by taking over the pipeline fund, suggesting he could end up in ethics trouble if he controlled the money.

"I like Roy Cooper, and I don’t want to see disbursement of this money by his staff that could get him in trouble down the road," Tucker said. "I don’t think there was any intention by him to create a slush fund. I don’t think there was any intention of him to create a memorandum of understanding that stinks. But it does."

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter called Republican lawmakers' stance on the mitigation fund hypocritical.

"Nearly every Republican legislator claims to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, yet they wanted to stop counties in its path from getting resources to ensure this project is a success," Porter said in a statement. "While meeting our energy needs, it is vital that we take steps to grow the economy and protect our environment in the counties this pipeline will cross."

Several Democrats pointed out that the class-size fix would not have been needed if GOP leaders had more carefully considered the mandate before they enacted it in 2016. Sen Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, also criticized Senate leaders for not taking action sooner to solve the problem, saying some school districts have already entered long-term contracts for trailer classrooms because of the looming deadline next fall.

"Everyone – our parents, our teachers, our children – suffered because this chamber decided to punish public schools," Chaudhuri said. "This body set fire to our public education system, and now we are the so-called firefighters. You can’t be the arsonist and the firefighter at the same time."

An additional provision would once again reshuffle the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement after lawmakers' previous two tries were thrown out as unconstitutional. Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, said that section had nothing to do with class size and everything to do with political points and should have been considered separately.

"Some of us will hold our nose and vote for it because we’re concerned about the kids, but it’s bad. It’s really bad. You didn’t have to do it this way," Lowe protested. "You have the strength, the power and the votes to do it this way, but it’s wrong."

Republicans had little patience for that argument, saying technical corrections measures are often collections of unrelated provisions.

"It’s time that we all work together and do what we need to do for the children of North Carolina," said Tucker. "This is a concrete fix with concrete numbers and recurring funding and most all the superintendents are on board with it."

The House will take its first vote on the measure Tuesday because of a House rule that budget bills must be publicly available for three days before the first vote. It's expected to pass easily and should be on Cooper's desk by the end of next week.