WCPSS Considers Its Class Size Reduction Options

As the question about class size requirements in grades K-3 lingers, the Wake County Public School System is preparing to add about 460 new elementary classroom teaching positions.

How the school system reaches that number is possible through several different scenarios, according to Superintendent James Merrill. He presented multiple options to restructure the school system to utilize existing staff who are licensed to teach in elementary classrooms. None of the options presented were considered for any immediate action. These were information items only.

While a bill known as HB13 that would adjust the current law by providing more class size flexibility is awaiting action in the state Senate, school systems are planning their budgets for the next school year. In fact, WCPSS is getting ready to instruct its principals at year-round elementary schools to plan for staffing their schools according the reduced class size ratios of 18 students in kindergarten, 16 students in first grade, and 17 students in second and third grades.

“There’s a heck of a difference between current law and what HB13 would propose to resolve,” Merrill told the school board. While he estimates the cost to add 460 teaching positions in grades K-3 at $26 million, if HB13 were passed the school system would have to add only 32 teaching positions at a cost of $1.8 million. HB13 would keep the class size ratios, but would grant more flexibility, and would almost put individual class sizes back to where they were before the changes made last year.

Merrill’s presentation Tuesday showed a number of options that could be used to fill the new positions by using current staff. For example, if arts and PE classes were to be cut, there are 41 out of 356 teachers who are also certified to teach regular elementary content, while 288 of those have no other certification. They might be provisionally licensed for elementary education, at a cost of $155,000, or they might lose their jobs.

Also 80 out of 90 instructional resource teachers also have elementary education certification. These teachers are already on staff at elementary schools throughout the county, and could be reassigned to the classroom. There are 380 central office staff who have elementary education certification who are eligible to be reassigned to a K-3 classroom if necessary as well.

None of these options are ones that Merrill said he was eager to consider because they would mean reducing operations and services in other parts of the school system.

“We rely heavily on those positions, but are they available? Yeah,” he said.

Even if the school system were able to afford to hire the additional positions, there’s still the question of where these additional classes of students will be taught. Merrill said there’s 66 elementary schools who are short a combined 286 classrooms, while 45 schools have an extra 214 classrooms. This includes all current mobile classrooms already in place. Each new mobile classroom takes about 12 months and costs about $86,000 apiece to permit, install, and equip. Also many elementary schools are ineligible for mobile classrooms based on their zoning regulations.

No votes were taken on this issue, and none of the proposals were considered as acceptable options. However, these are possible ways to meet the new class size mandate unless HB13 is passed and signed by the governor.

Board members were curious to know about the suggestion made by state legislators that the state budget has provided additional funding over several years for class size reduction.

Merrill told the board that the state has provided a cumulative increase $131 million towards reducing class size statewide since the 2011-12 school year, but also reduced funding by $286 million in another teacher allotment area in 2013-14. This amounts to a net reduction of $155 million in statewide funding for teaching positions.

For WCPSS, that is roughly a $15 million reduction in funding for teaching positions, Merrill said.

The superintendent’s budget proposal that was presented to the school board on April 4 did not recommend any cuts to elementary arts and physical education. The budget requested an additional $56.6 million in local funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners, including $13 million for hiring for class size reduction requirements. The budget is being reviewed by the school board, which will vote to send it to the commissioners at the school board meeting on May 2. County commissioners will review the request and vote on the additional funding request by the end of June.

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