State, schools working out class size issues

Published 9:33 am Thursday, February 16, 2017

Davie Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness told specialty teachers last week he appreciates what they do and has taken steps to let legislators know how valuable they are to the school system.

Those teachers, of art, music, and physical education, listened as Hartness discussed at the school board meeting the ramifications of a class size mandate that was part of the General Assembly’s budget last year. The mandate would take away the flexibility school systems have exercised in the past, exceeding classroom teacher funding ratios in grades kindergarten through third.

But Hartness told the board and audience that HB13, unanimously passed earlier in the day Feb. 7, “cuts the damage in half,” by allowing three additional students beyond the state-funded ratio per school system and six additional students in each individual class above the ratio.

Currently, the system has between 18 and 20 students per class in grades K-3. The system’s max average is 21 students per class but individual classes may have as many as 24. Under the mandate, the system’s max average would be 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade, and 17 in each second and third grades, with the individual class max 21 for kindergarten, 19 first grade, and 20 each second and third grade. Those changes would force the school system to adjust staffing in one or more of three ways: by making cuts in specialty teacher positions, increasing class sizes in grades four-12 to free up state teacher allotments to fund those positions or requesting local funding.

The mandate could have cost the school system over $1.2 million, with additional teachers, assistants and reorganization and equipping additional classrooms.

If HB13 becomes law, it would alleviate some of the needs but Hartness said seven new teachers and assistants would still be needed.

The board unanimously passed a resolution urging legislators to take action to allow school systems continued flexibility in class size.

Hartness said he didn’t want folks to “be alarmed” and is hopeful the issue will be addressed in the coming weeks.

The mandate and its potential effects caught school officials and even some legislators by surprise. When Hartness found out about it early last fall, he reached out to Rep. Julia Howard, Sen. Andrew Brock, House Speaker Tim Moore, and his education policy advisor, Aaron Fleming, among others. In his email to them, dated Sept. 19, he said he hoped it was “an oversight” in the budget bill that would be corrected.

Fleming responded almost immediately, letting Hartness know he was addressing it with fiscal staff, and he followed up the next day to say it would be addressed in the long session.

Howard responded two days after the original email, saying she asked “research to advise.”

Four months after the original email, on Jan. 25, Brock’s assistant, Judy Edwards, emailed Hartness to say “The Senate Education Committee is continuing to look into these concerns further and is working with education stakeholders and invite any additional feedback from superintendents and or local school boards.”

She said Brock’s office receives “so many emails” and they try to answer them in a timely manner.