Proposed class size reductions mandated by the General Assembly have put plans to redistrict Wayne County Public Schools on hold until they are resolved, WCPS Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said Friday.
The mandate, which the General Assembly handed down in 2016, was originally slated to go into effect during the 2017-18 school year. It would have reduced maximum class sizes in grades K-3 to between 18 and 16 students, depending on the grade, but was delayed for a year after widespread opposition from educators and school district officials across the state. Now, as WCPS leaders try to figure out how to best address overcrowding in schools, the mandate is again causing problems.
"We're kind of in a holding pattern here, because we don't know what's going to happen with the class size mandate," Dunsmore said. "If it goes through as it is, we'll need a lot more space than we originally needed, and I don't want to put something in place and then have to tear it all up a few months later."
By reducing class sizes, the mandate would require WCPS to add substantially more space -- as many as 50 classrooms -- and hire the teachers to fill them. David Lewis, assistant superintendent for accountability/information technology, said that, as the district stands now, it would be mathematically impossible to eliminate overcrowding in the district even without taking the mandate into consideration or accounting for new building projects.
"Even if we were to take the whole district and divide them out to each school based on the capacity of those schools, then there wouldn't be enough space, you would have some left over," he said. "While we do have two elementary schools which operate under capacity, that's Fremont STARS Elementary and Carver Heights Elementary, there's not enough space in those two to absorb the overages in the rest of them."
Other efforts to combat overcrowding have had mixed results. A moratorium on student transfers, enacted in September, has helped some schools who previously had high numbers of transfers out. However, some other schools with many students leaving were actually hurt.
"That has worked really well for schools like North Drive, Carver Heights, that had a lot of kids coming out," he said. "But here's the thing on that, some of the schools that were negatively impacted by that also had a lot of kids coming out -- tend to have more kids going out than coming in. We had to add additional teachers at those facilities because they kept more kids at home, so to speak."
Those three schools were already overcrowded before the moratorium, with Northwest more than 300 students over capacity in September of 2017.
Until lawmakers in Raleigh nail down how class sizes are to be handled in 2018, committing to a redistricting strategy will be difficult, Dunsmore said. Senator Chad Barefoot, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and one of the leading proponents of the class size reductions, promised last year to find a way to fund the art, music and physical education classes which might have to be cut to create space for new regular classrooms. So far no such proposal has been pushed through, and Barefoot announced in August that he will retire and not run for re-election in 2018.
House Bill 13, a bill sponsored by Reps. John Bell and Jimmy Dixon which would have eased the requirements in 2017, was later amended in the Senate to simply push them to the 2018-19 school year.
At the Wayne County commissioners' planning retreat Thursday, commissioner Joe Daughtery suggested that Wayne County simply ignore the mandate, which would cost the county nearly $5 million, and instead pay the fine -- Dunsmore's salary. Dunsmore said he appreciated the potential willingness on the county's part to take that hit, but was wary of potential retaliation from the state.
"If suddenly everyone in the state starts just saying 'well we'll just do it this way and pay the fine,' it's possible the state just says 'okay, well then the counties can fund it,'" he said, referring to art, music and physical education. "I think that would be a serious disservice to our students, because it is the state's responsibility to provide a sound public education. In my opinion, a sound public education includes art, music and P.E., because that educates the whole child."
Despite that, the system may have no choice but to miss the mark on class size reductions if they do go through as planned. Even if the county appropriated all of the necessary funds to build a new school and hire new teachers, it would be physically impossible to have it all in place by the time the requirements come into effect, Lewis said.
The state-wide teacher shortage would also make finding enough teachers difficult, especially because every other county in North Carolina would also have to hire new teachers. Wayne County's teacher supplement, which lags behind those of nearby Johnston and Wake Counties, would put WCPS at a disadvantage in a tight competition for employees.
The school system adopted a draft timeline last year which would have seen elementary schools redistricted by March of this year. Dunsmore said that district leadership have five potential scenarios for redistricting drawn up, which they will discuss with members of the Student Assignment Committee at a so-far-unannounced meeting. In the meantime, Dunsmore said, "it's a lot of hurry up and wait" until the state provides a clearer picture of exactly what the rules are.