Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

One of the first things House Representative Kevin Corbin did after taking office was sponsor a bill to address classroom size requirements that stood to cost counties across the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in new personnel costs or result in cutting programs such as art and music. House Bill 13 offers local school districts flexibility over their average and maximum classroom sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

House Bill 13, which was primarily sponsored by Corbin, would cap individual K-3 class sizes at 22 to 24 students, depending on grade level. Maximum average class sizes would range from 19 to 21 students.

“This bill is something that impacts the entire state. From small school systems like mine which would save $1.1 million districtwide, all the way to larger district such as Charlotte/Mecklenburg school district which will save $23 million a year,” said Rep. Corbin. “I think the fact that it passed the House unanimously speaks to the statewide impact and support this bill has in our public school system.”

School districts across the state were bracing for significant budget shortfalls based on mandated class size requirements approved last year. In Macon County, the local school board was expecting a $350,000-$400,000 shortfall, that could have resulted in programs such as art and physical education being cut to make up for the funding.

House Bill 13 isn’t new legislation that raises the cap on class sizes, but rather is a measure to undo legislation that was initiated in the Senate last year, and set to go into effect next fall. House Bill 13 will resolve the unintended consequences of a legislative mandate last year that schools trim class sizes in the lower grades, but because the original legislation was enacted in the Senate, despite a unanimous vote by the House to approve the measure, its fate in the Senate is unclear. Senator Jim Davis doesn’t think the bill will fare well.

“Since 2011, we have invested $200 million to LEAs (Local Education Agencies) to reduce class sizes, specifically in K-3 classrooms,” said Senator Davis. “The issue we have is that we haven’t seen a good accountability of those dollars. Research shows irrefutable evidence that lower class sizes enhances student performance, which is why it’s been a priority in the past.”

Senator Davis said that claims stating that House Bill 13 is an unfunded mandate isn’t accurate. “Saying that by reducing class sizes, it’s an unfunded mandate and places a burden on local districts is a bit disingenuous,” said Sen. Davis. “It Isn’t entirely accurate. I am a local government guy and believe in giving local governments and school boards more control. This legislation doesn’t dictate how local districts meet the smaller class size requirements. They can place two teachers in a classroom, or share an extra teacher between classrooms.”

Senator Davis said that a questionnaire has been sent out to all LEAs in the state, looking for an account of how the $200 million was spent and to survey the already existing lower class size requirement.

“I think House Bill 13 will be dormant in the Senate until we see the results of that questionnaire,” he said.

If House Bill 13 isn’t successful in the Senate, beginning with next school year, school districts across the state will no longer have the ability to exceed the state’s mandated average classroom sizes in grades K-3. Without easing that mandate or providing additional financing on the state level, local school officials complained of broad impacts on staffing, infrastructure, teaching assistants and class sizes in grades 4-12.

“This is currently one of the most important education bills before the general assembly,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “Rep. Corbin’s bill will allow local school systems to keep K-3 class sizes at their current levels and also continue to provide music, art and PE to these youngsters.”

Corbin was also a primary sponsor on House Bill 52, which among other items, would push for the first day of school to begin on August 10 at the earliest.

“Every district I have spoken to wants to be able to start their school year early enough to be able to end the first semester before Christmas so testing can be done before kids go home for two weeks,” said Corbin.

School districts in North Carolina must have a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. Macon County adheres to the 1,025 hour minimum.

The state school calendar law limits flexibility for school districts on when they can begin and end the school year. School cannot start any earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Macon County extended each school day by 20 minutes, a provision allowed under the current law, to ensure testing is done before Christmas. If House Bill 52 is passed, shorter school days would be possible.

“The flexibility to set the start date of the school calendar would allow Macon County to align our school calendar with the local community college calendars,” said Dr. Baldwin. “This is important for our early graduates who must now sit out a semester before they can enroll in college.  An earlier start date would also allow our high schools to complete their End of Course exams prior to Christmas break.  Macon County Schools is currently able to test before the break, but this requires an extended school day and a semester that is a few days shorter than the spring semester.”