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Lawmakers leave town after passing class size fix measure

Posted February 13, 2018 12:17 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2018 6:52 p.m. EST

— State lawmakers adjourned their latest special session Tuesday after sending a bill that would phase in caps to elementary school class sizes to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Two years ago, lawmakers mandated smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade as a way to boost student achievement. But school district officials said added extra classes in early grades was forcing them to make cuts elsewhere, either in later grades or to non-core areas such as music, art and physical education, for both budgetary and space reasons.

House Bill 90 keeps class sizes at current levels for the 2018-19 school year and then phases in the reductions over the next three years. It also includes about $60 million a year for "enhancement" teachers in non-core subjects and adds to the annual appropriation for pre-kindergarten programs so the waiting list for North Carolina Pre-K can be eliminated by 2021.

"This is an important day for early childhood education. Vote for their future," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, told his colleagues.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake, supported the bill but said schools shouldn't have needed an emergency fix.

"We should have fixed the class size 10 months ago. We should have removed the Pre-K waitlist in our budget. We had the funds to do both as this bill proves," Ball said.

The House voted 104-12 for the measure, following the Senate's 37-5 vote last Friday.

But several Democrats in both chambers criticized the legislation because of provisions unrelated to class size.

One section distributes the money in a $57.8 million fund set up to mitigate any environmental problems caused by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and boost economic development along the pipeline route and to school districts in the eight counties traversed by the natural gas pipeline.

Another provision would once again reshuffle the membership of the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement after lawmakers' previous two tries were thrown out by judges as unconstitutional. Critics say the new plan to have four Democrats and four Republicans on the board select an unaffiliated ninth member is unlikely to pass judicial muster.

Republicans chose not to include a severability clause – language that allows parts of a bill to stand even if other parts are thrown out – in the bill. So, if the elections board provision is ruled unconstitutional, the class size fix will be scrapped as well, said Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe.

"That means that the chances of the funding for the schools actually happening while the case is in court (are) slim to none," Fisher said.

Cooper is reviewing the bill and hasn't decided whether to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature, a spokesman said. The governor did say, however, that the provision on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline fund could endanger the fund.

Lawmakers left town after five weeks but still couldn't agree on how to handle chemical contamination in state waterways.

House and Senate members agree that the state Department of Environmental Quality needs more funding for permitting and monitoring unregulated chemicals such as GenX, which has been found in the Cape Fear River and in groundwater near a Bladen County chemical plant. But Republican leaders couldn't agree on the details of how DEQ could use that money.

Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley called the lack of action on GenX "disgraceful."

"People in the Cape Fear region have a right to be angry that legislative leaders have failed to do their duty and give state scientists the tools they need to deal with GenX and other emerging contaminants," Talley said in a statement.

Rep. Deb Butler, R-New Hanover, agreed: "I think it's a shame that we have wasted taxpayer dollars for 35 days."

The General Assembly isn't expected to return to Raleigh until May 16.