Governor Puts Onus of Bigger Classes on Local N.C. School Boards

Published October 10, 2009

A last-minute, face-saving deal on class size allowed North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue (D) to shift blame for the loss of teaching positions in this year’s budget from Raleigh down to local school boards and superintendents.

The deal, however, created headaches for administrators trying to figure out how many teachers they could really afford to hire mere days before the school began. Despite the governor’s appeals to school superintendents to save teacher jobs, fewer teachers will be employed this year and classrooms will be more crowded.

In response to an unprecedented revenue shortfall this spring, legislative leaders initially planned to raise class size by two students per class this year and by one more the next. That plan drew Perdue’s ire; she declared she would not support a budget that cut teacher positions. Faced with the governor’s complaints, legislative leaders dropped references to class size and instead simply cut $225 million from the public schools budget, the amount it would have cost to keep class size the same as last year. Each district was assigned a share of the cut in proportion to its student population. Wake County Schools, the state’s largest school district, lost more than $20.6 million in the deal, while tiny Tyrell County Schools had to cut $91,000.

Difficult Decisions

School districts were given wide latitude to deal with the cutbacks, the only stipulation being that class size in kindergarten through third grade (currently 18 students per teacher) could not increase. But with nearly all other allotments of state funds to public schools already slashed, superintendents found the only way to cover the discretionary reduction was to increase class sizes and eliminate teachers.

Administrators immediately grasped the political implications of the deal. Before the final votes on the budget had been cast, North Carolina Association of School Administrators Executive Director Bill McNeal said the maneuver was “merely passing the buck on a very difficult decision. All this will do is make the local board of education and the superintendent become the bad guys in deciding which jobs to cut.”

But Perdue insisted that by using federal stimulus dollars, school districts should be able to manage the cuts without reducing teaching positions. On August 14 she sent a letter to all 115 local superintendents listing each district’s share of federal money available from the stimulus bill, and strongly urging superintendents to use those funds to save teaching positions. However, the federal money she referenced in her letter can be used only in “Title I” (high-poverty) schools, for assisting disabled students, or for specified purposes such as technology.

Federal “maintenance of effort” rules also prevent the shifting of local or state dollars out of those schools and budget areas for use elsewhere. All other federal stimulus funds had already been included in the state budget in other allotments, most of which are still funded below the previous year’s levels.

Keeping Watch

Nevertheless, Perdue has remained adamant about not dropping teachers. At an August 5 news conference, she said, “In my mind, it’s going to be really hard for somebody to explain to me why they’ve had to cut teaching positions.” While the governor has no authority over local school superintendents, she’s let them know she’ll be watching closely how each district handles its cuts.

The impact of the discretionary reduction in the districts was felt immediately. As budget negotiations took shape in late spring, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman was one of the most aggressive in slashing teaching positions in anticipation of severe cutbacks. But the $20.6 million his district lost in the discretionary cut was actually less than he had planned for, and on August 12 he announced CMS would hire 286 more teachers.

Still, CMS schools’ average class sizes are higher this year. In addition, the teachers being hired aren’t necessarily the same ones let go earlier. Gorman told his principals to focus on hiring the best teachers available.

“What’s in the best interest of the kids ¼ is bringing back the finest people we can, and that may be someone new,” he said. ‘Saving Jobs’ Wake County Schools took a similar approach, releasing nearly 1,500 teachers at the end of last school year and hiring back more than 900 in mid-August. Superintendent Del Burns notes “Class sizes will be larger” despite Perdue’s admonitions.

While superintendents handle the cuts, the North Carolina Association of Educators is spinning the loss of teaching positions as a union success story. On the union’s Web site, NCAE president Sherri Strickland echoes Perdue’s arguments, telling members the “NCAE Stimulus Team” is meeting with superintendents around the state to show them how to use stimulus dollars to save teachers’ jobs. In its August 7 “Daily Political Briefing,” the union claimed success in saving 200 teacher positions in Forsyth County, but mentioned neither the 1,100 positions eliminated earlier that year nor the overall increase in class size that has resulted in fewer teaching positions.

Jim Stegall ([email protected]) is a contributor to Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., which ran a previous version of this story. Used with permission.