What is certain about the new smaller class size requirements for grades K-3 is that the issue is a complex one.
Members of the Onslow County Board of Education have discussed potential impacts at both its last workshop and at this week’s regular board meeting. Many options are being reviewed for how best to address the issue, but what the board knows is that it is not as simple as lowering the number of students in the classrooms.
“This situation is very complicated and there is not one solution to it,” Onslow County Schools Superintendent Rick Stout told the board during the recent workshop.
A legislative mandate to reduce class sizes in the lower grades was included as part of the state budget and school districts across the state face meeting new requirements for kindergarten through third grade effective with the 2017-2018 school year.
House Bill 13
There has been a lot of talk from the school officials about the need for legislative intervention to lessen the impacts. The board approved a resolution at the April 4 meeting requesting legislative action, and soon.
The bill wouldn’t eliminate impacts but would reduce them by allowing school districts continued flexibility is addressing class size limits.
“As it stands now, our K-3 class size is going to be restricted and we won’t have any flexibility,” Stout said.
Growing school district and also a one that served a military community, which means a lot of transition as students come and go throughout the year.
School board member Paul Wiggins, who is a retired educator, said class sizes fluctuate during a school year and you can’t just create new classrooms when a class size goes over one student.
“The students keep coming; you can’t just create a new class at that time,” he said.
Under new requirements, maximum class sizes in the lower grades range from 16 to 18 students per class, depending on the grade.
Stout said the problem is that they would have little of the flexibility they currently have to address the issue if a class exceeds a maximum amount. HB13 or legislation like it is needed to restore that flexibility.
People and spaces
Like school districts across the state, Onslow County Schools is looking at the need for more K-3 teachers and additional classroom spaces to put them in starting next year. Unless something changes, Stout said they are looking at the need for 147 additional positions for their K-3 grades.
According to a presentation by Stout at this week’s meeting, 17 of the district’s elementary schools would be impacted, with 13 of the schools with an immediate need for temporary classrooms, for a total of 51 temporary classrooms to be established across the district by next year.
Those numbers would be reduced if HB13 is passed but right now the school district faces planning for the requirements in place. Stout said they don’t have the space to add all new classrooms and are looking at options from mobile classrooms to finding any available space within the existing schools.
“We don’t oppose small class size; the problem that we have in the Onslow County school system is that we are bursting at the seams,” Stout said.
When you are looking at putting as many as 147 additional positions in the district’s K-3 schools, Stout said the impact goes beyond K-3 grades.
As people and resources are moved to the K-3 setting to meet the new requirements, they are pulled from other areas. They are looking at potential impacts such as a larger student ratio in the high grades; combination classes in the lower grades; the elimination or transfer of positions for enhancement programs such as art, music and physical education; and impacts to support positions such as exceptional children positions.
“We appreciate small class size but we have to have the resources to accommodate it,” Stout said this week.
Discussions of the class size issue come as the school district budget is being discussed and school board member Earl Taylor noted at the workshop that the requirements are also an “unfunded mandate” coming down from the state.
That trickles down to the county and impacts the school system budget as well as the county budget, which also provides education funding.
Specific numbers on the financial impact have been on hold as school officials have been waiting to see whether or not HB13 or similar legislation passes.
But there are costs associated with leasing or buying mobile classrooms to put on a school campus, retrofitting existing spaces to convert them to classrooms, or having to build new facilities.
The long-term solution to more classroom space is building new schools.
School officials noted at the workshop that every new school that goes up is a $15 million to $20 million project or more.
As a retired educator, Wiggins looks beyond the budget and the numbers to what he sees as an equally important consequence, even if unintended.
He said there is also an impact to the school environment if schools have teachers working in less than ideal situations due to cramped quarters, shared spaces and traveling classes.
Onslow County Schools wants the best teachers and will be competing with school district across the state for additional teachers as the new requirements take place.
“There will be new young teachers coming out of college, what kind of support is that?” he asked.