by Cindy McMahon
With all the disagreement about public education in today’s environment, there’s one thing we can all agree on. Smaller class sizes are better for students. There’s simply no question about it. We can also all agree that smaller classes cost more in personnel expenses, in building space and in classroom supplies. In recent years, the NC Legislature has brought this quandary to the forefront for every school system in the state, including Buncombe County.
It all started with the 2016-17 NC budget, passed by the Legislature on July 1, 2016. This budget included a provision that school systems must significantly shrink class sizes in kindergarten through third grade for the 2017-18 school year. With no funding to support this effort, this change would have had severe negative impacts on local school systems.
Recognizing these challenges, Representatives McGrady, Elmore and Malone introduced House Bill 13 in January 2017. This bill, while still requiring school systems to shrink class sizes and providing no extra funding to do so, eased the transition by instituting a two-year phase-in period for class sizes (see chart). The final HB 13 passed on April 27, 2017.
In Buncombe County Schools, we were able to meet the 2017-18 requirements by adjusting class schedules across the system (shifting some funding from middle and high schools to the lower grades), adding one half-time music teacher and requesting two waivers for non-core classes. The financial impact for next school year will be far larger.
In planning for these changes, the school system must address two separate challenges: the personnel cost (which will continue into future years) and the facilities cost. For core classroom teachers alone, we project that the cost will be over $2.5 million to add the salary and benefits for the new teachers needed to meet these class size requirements. And we’ll also have to add instructional assistants as well as PE, art and music teachers. It appears the total cost will easily top $3 million in recurring additional personnel costs.
Then we must create additional classroom space. This means converting computer labs (no longer needed since every student will have a personal device provided by the school), dividing larger classrooms into two where we can and/or providing modular classrooms if there is not space within the building. At this time, $675,600 is the estimated capital cost to provide additional classroom furnishings/equipment, renovation and modular placement across the system. We expect to cover this cost by requesting additional state lottery funds and potentially deferring other approved maintenance projects.
Four elementary schools in Buncombe County have been designated as “Critical Projects,” meaning they will require more work to create adequate classrooms to meet the new requirements. One is Fairview Elementary, where we will divide the former computer lab into two classrooms, equip a modular classroom and provide additional materials and supplies for several other classrooms. The total cost is estimated at $105,000 to $128,260.
There are rumors the legislature may discuss additional funding for this mandate when they convene in May. But that will be too late! The legislature convenes on May 16 and our budget for next is due to the County Commissioners on May 15, 2018.
You Can Help
Please contact our local legislators and urge them to take up this matter while they are in Raleigh this month so that they can consider changing the funding formulas to help school systems create improved learning environments for our students. Thank you!
Cindy McMahon is the Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.