A bill introduced by the N.C. General Assembly to reduce class sizes has potential, but it would be a "train wreck" if implemented as-is, Wayne County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said Friday.
The bill, which mandates that state public schools reduce their average class sizes in grades K-3 to a set of state-regulated numbers, was originally brought up during budget negotiations late last year.
The class size numbers must fall in line with pre-determined student/teacher ratios.
In kindergarten, the ratio is one teacher per 18 students, while the ratio in first grade is one teacher for every 16 students. Second and third grade must have one teacher per 17 students.
Hitting those class sizes right now is impossible, Dunsmore said, as the district would need to add 64 new teachers to accommodate the increased number of classes.
The current average class size in all four grades K-3 is 21 students, said WCPS Assistant Superintendent for Accountability/Information and Technology David Lewis.
Those numbers fall in line with current state K-3 classroom regulations, although districts have the flexibility to have individual classes with up to 24 students.
School district officials across the state have said that the bill would force them to cut out art, music and physical education programs in order to make room.
"When you read about what other systems are doing, we're allotted on student numbers, and a lot of positions don't figure into that fund, in particular art, music, some of them. So local budgets and other funding sources handle that," he said.
Because state funding is based on those student numbers, reducing class sizes and requiring more teachers could force some districts to spend more local money on hiring, as the total student population would not increase at the same rate as the number of new hires.
Finding those teachers in the first place could be a challenge as well.
"That's 64 teachers here in Wayne County, but across the state we know we're facing a bit of a teacher shortage, and where are the certified teachers coming from?" Dunsmore asked.
There would also need to be additional space constructed in which to actually hold those classes, unless the district could find ways to re-allocate classrooms that already exist.
The question of space is the main concern for WCPS, Dunsmore said.
"Where do you put them? Some of the discussions we're having at my level is, you can increase class sizes at grades four and five, but then you're just kind of shooting yourself in the foot," he said. "But it would create some space. You can take art and music rooms and create space."
While making such drastic changes by the 2017-2018 school year would be impossible, Dunsmore said the bill is well-intentioned, and he is optimistic about changes that could, if made, make it more realistic.
"This is a great idea, but nobody is prepared to implement it right now," he said. "We're going to have to come up with a plan to roll that out. I think everybody agrees that smaller classes are better. Our kids are changing and it's a bigger challenge.
"But if they just mandate 'this is how it is, you guys go and figure it out,' that's a train wreck."
Dunsmore said that steps like the school regrouping plan enacted by the Board of Education last June have already put Wayne County ahead of the curve in reducing class sizes. He added that further reducing them is a realistic goal, given time to work and resources to work with.
"I'm optimistic, just because the conversation is there. I think we're unique here. The Board (of Education) and the Board of Commissioners have a great relationship, and Mr. (John) Bell, Representative (Jimmy) Dixon, Senator (Louis) Pate and Senator (Don) Davis, all of those people, we're having these conversations, how can we work these things out.
"I'm not going to prophesies doom and gloom, because I don't think that's the intent of our General Assembly. I think their intent, like all of ours, is to do what's best for the kids."
An updated version of the bill was introduced earlier this week, which allows for class sizes to exceed the funded allotment ratios by three students. Dunsmore hopes to see additional similar changes that will help school districts approach the issue gradually.
"We need to take a look at these types of things and say how can we roll this out, lower those class sizes and not overwhelm, in this case Wayne County, because the county and the citizens are who drive our capital budget ---- and that's where the huge expense would come from to make that space," he said.