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State Rep. Chuck McGrady on Thursday celebrated a rare victory for a substantive piece of lawmaking — a unanimous vote by the House for a bill that rolls back the Legislature’s budget-busting class-size requirement.
The state House approved the bill 114-0 and sent it on to the Senate. There’s urgency in enacting the bill because school boards are now drafting budgets for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.
The state law ordering smaller K-3 classes would require Henderson County to add 48 teachers at a cost of $2.5 million a year and to add mobile units costing of $1 million, school administrators told the School Board last month. School officials said meeting the class size requirement without additional money would have required schools to eliminate phys-ed, art, music and other classes or would have forced larger classes in higher grades.
“If we give them the flexibility in June, by then the local boards would have had to set their budgets,” he said. “That’s why we introduced it in the special session. We were ready to run it in December.”
Armed with the detailed analysis that Henderson County school administrators had produced, McGrady guided the bill through committee and to passage on the House floor. The Henderson County school system was one of the first in the state to flag the issue and calculate the cost. Other school districts produced similar eye-popping numbers. In Wake County, administrators said the law would require 460 new teachers and 400 more classrooms at a total cost of $320 million.
“It’s always effective to talk about your own county and how you’re affected by it,” McGrady said. “The school system had done a good job of providing the facts.”
McGrady acknowledged that he had to swim upstream in one way: Legislators generally support reducing class size, especially in lower grades.
“There’s more than one way usually to skin a cat,” he told those who pressed the point. “The reason we’re moving this way right away is we’re trying to send the signal that we need to do this now while school boards are doing their budgets.”
McGrady said the criticism of the bill as unfunded mandate is inaccurate. The Legislature did fund the projected personnel cost, he said, but school boards in many cases had shifted the money to other areas — including music, P.E. and art — something that state law also allows.
Chuck Edwards, the freshman senator elected to fill the seat held by Tom Apodaca, said he has ordered research by the legislative staff.
"It's important fully understand how we got here before we try to sculpt how to solve the problem," he said. "I am hearing that it would be a significant cost to fund the class sizes that have actually been encouraged for several years now.”
Edwards said he would oppose funding the class-size reduction “if they were to choose to do that just on the backs of teachers. I do not yet understand why art, music and PE have become the target where surely there are other places cost could be diverted. That’s one of the things that I'm researching.”
Like McGrady, Edwards says school districts used budgeting flexibility the Legislature granted to shift money to non-core classes.
“There’s been too much flexibility by the DPI (Department of Public Instruction) to allow the schools to not meet the class size requirement,” Edwards said. “Many schools were able to use the funds somewhere else and we have not seen the reduction of class size that we expected. I don’t have a deadline (on getting answers from staff). I do know there’s a sense of urgency because counties are a few weeks away from putting together their budget. We certainly are sensitive to that but we don’t want haste to prevent us from making a good decision. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that the overall goal with this problem is to reduce class size.”
Legislators also have been hearing from county commissioners back home about the capital cost side, which under state law is the responsibility of counties.
“School funding is a cooperative effort,” McGrady said. “They’ve got the brick and mortar. If you’ve got smaller class sizes, you’re going to have the need for more class space and that’s brick and mortar.”
McGrady was not predicting quick passage in the Senate.
“I think they understand the problem and they have senators that understand the problem — Sen. Edwards, Sen. Davis out west,” he said. “If this is not the solution give me the solution. We’re trying to not to draw any line in the sand.”