Reduced class size adds $13 million to $56.6 million WCPSS budget increase request

Wake County Public School System is one of the lucky ones when it comes to absorbing the impact of the General Assembly’s action on reduced class size in grades K-3, but it is going to cost the taxpayers more.

Superintendent Jim Merrill told the Wake County School Board that his budget request includes an additional $13 million in spending to cover the cost of hiring more than 460 new K-3 teachers and providing classroom spaces. That’s half of the $26 million impact the 2016 law that set class sizes at 18 students in kindergarten, 16 in first grade, and 17 each in second and third grades.

The difference between the amount budgeted and the cost to hire new teachers is an open gamble on Merrill’s part. He’s planning for the impact, but he’s hopeful the General Assembly will come through and fix the class size law to reduce class sizes before the school year starts for traditional school in August.

A bill known as HB13 would allow an increase to the class sizes to six more students per grade, which would offer some relief for this increased spending. The bill was passed by the House, and it is now sitting in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting action. Senators have expressed concern that the money they have provided in previous budgets to reduce class sizes has not been spent on that initiative.

Normally, a budget document is as much a policy statement as much as it is a spending plan. Despite the impact of class size reduction, Merrill laid out several spending priorities in his letter to the school board which offers some detail into his request for a total of $56.6 million in new spending next year. He also highlighted the system’s goal of graduating 95 percent of students by 2020, and he reminded the school board members that WCPSS leads the nation in National Board Certified teachers, has increased the participation of African American student by 50 percent in Advanced Placement classes.

In addition to the increased spending on smaller class sizes, the budget increases also include other expenses that the school system cannot control such as increased enrollment, opening new schools, and paying for other cost increases caused by changes from the General Assembly in addition to class size. Those factors amount to $36 million in new spending.

The schools are also asking for $5.1 million in new spending to continue programs such as the successful Elementary Support Model schools, the nationally recognized magnet school programs, and increasing the extra-duty pay for teachers which hasn’t been significantly increased in decades. Offsetting those increases is $5.6 million in program reductions.

The final portion of the budget increase is $20.1 million to pay for new or expanding programs which covers initiatives such as increasing the number school counselors and social workers, expanding the work of the Equity Affairs office to improve cultural understanding across the district, to make bus driver pay more competitive, and for an alternative middle school program, among others.

No votes were made at the meeting. The budget will now be discussed in committee by the school board before being they vote to send it to the Wake County Board of Commissioners for consideration in May.

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