The process of formulating a 2018-2019 school district operating budget has barely started, but it’s already bringing about a sense of deja vu for the Moore County Board of Education.

If the state legislature follows through on its stated intent and enacts class size reductions in kindergarten through third grade, and the district’s enrollment projections hold true, Moore County Schools will have to create an extra 25 classrooms in its primary and elementary schools next year.

The state funds teaching positions for individual school districts based on the number of students enrolled but has allowed for class sizes that deviate from the funded teacher-student ratio. A year ago, the schools started to contend with the prospect of reducing class sizes to comply with legislation meant to hold local school districts to the funded ratio in grades K-3.

But when school systems throughout North Carolina balked at the financial and logistical burden involved, the state backtracked and phased in an incremental version of the legislation that reduced the maximum average K-3 class size from 21 to 20 for the current year.

For 2018-2019, the state is expected to hold its school districts to the full version of the legislation passed in 2015. That would tighten the cap on average class sizes from 20 to 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grade.

Hiring 25 additional teachers outright would cost the district $1.5 million annually. The alternative would be to take those teachers from somewhere else in the district. Since art, music and PE teachers are not state-funded positions, those teachers’ salaries are offset by class sizes slightly larger than the state’s funding formula would suggest. The district could also move teachers from grades four and up to K-3 classrooms because there are no class size regulations above third grade.

Earlier this year, the possibility of losing teachers in those “special” subjects brought hundreds of students, school staff and parents before the school board to protest cuts in the district’s present level of services.

“Absent any additional local operational funding, we’re looking at a year very similar to if not worse than last year with the full implementation of class size reduction,” said Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “There is nothing promising about the operational budget development challenges that we have ahead of us.”

Between the gradual class size reduction enacted for this year and the county’s agreement to make up to $1.7 million of its reserves available to fund shortfalls caused by the state budget, Moore County Schools was able to preserve the vast majority of its existing teaching and staff positions.

But the class size reductions pending for next year are far more dramatic. The schools’ enrollment projections indicate that Pinehurst Elementary, which already houses extra students in mobile classrooms, will be dealing with 41 additional students on top of more restrictions on the number of students in a class.

At some schools, relegating art and music teachers to a supply cart in lieu of a designated classroom or putting multiple classes in one room under a “co-teaching” model might be options.

Throughout the district, the schools anticipate using 15 more modular classrooms at elementary schools next year, including five at Pinehurst, four at Sandhills Farm Life and three each at Vass-Lakeview and West Pine. Including the cost of acquiring those, complying with the new class sizes could cost the schools up to $2.6 million.

“As concerning as it is to know we need this many more classrooms, I’m really concerned about where we’re going to find the teachers to put in these classrooms,” said board member Libby Carter.

When North Carolina’s public schools try to hire the thousands of teachers needed to comply with the class size reductions, they may not find them. The number of new teachers being produced in North Carolina’s universities has declined by 30 percent since 2010, and while the state’s average teaching salaries have risen slightly since 2015 they still fall below most neighboring states.

“Although Moore County is in fairly good condition right now for having qualified, certified personnel in classrooms, all around us there are districts that do not,” Carter said. “I don’t know if our legislators realize that we don’t mass-produce teachers, especially not qualified ones.”

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