The list of priorities was largely unchanged from a year ago, but Lenoir County Public School administrators made clear to the county’s legislative delegation on Monday the tone of that list had been softened some by incremental steps the N.C. General Assembly has recently taken on public education.
“I’m pleased to say that we think the General Assembly is headed in the right direction on many of these things,” LCPS Superintendent Brent Williams told Sens. Louis Pate and Don Davis and Rep. George Graham during the school district’s annual Legislative Breakfast.
Also in the audience were a host of local elected officials, including Craig Hill, chair of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners, and most of his board; Jon Sargeant, chair of the Lenoir County Board of Education, and five other members of that board; and La Grange Mayor Woody Gurley. (Rep. John Bell, the fourth member of the legislative delegation, was unable to attend.)
Williams, Sargeant and Associate Superintendent Frances Herring did not waste the opportunity to remind those officials of the progress LCPS has made in the past two years in terms of student achievement; in looking ahead, they framed the district’s legislative priorities as steps to ensure that momentum continues.
Specifically, the district asked for further refinement of K-3 class size limits, for an accountability grading system that puts more emphasis on student growth, for the same flexibility given charter schools in developing a school calendar and for a funding method that will help public schools statewide meet a mounting list of construction and other infrastructure needs, now estimated at $8 billion over the next five years.
Class size limits, an issue of primary concern to public school administrators for the past two years, still topped LCPS’s list of priorities, but with an asterisk.
Since the legislation, HB13, was originally approved and a hard cap of 16 to 18 students imposed for classrooms in grades kindergarten through third, lawmakers have eased off implementation, originally scheduled for 2017-2018 but then delayed for a year. The last change, approved during a special session this winter, phases the mandate for smaller classrooms in over four years.
Williams expressed to legislators the district’s appreciation for this “gradual approach,” even though the class-size caps will require LCPS to hire an estimated 18 additional teachers, identify extra classroom space and cost more than $1 million over the next three years.
“Again, thank you, but …,” Williams said.
“What we’re saying is thank you for all you’ve done to amend the original HB 13, but two things …,” he added, asking lawmakers to ensure that enhancement positions like art and music teachers are adequately funded – a provision of this past winter’s compromise – and to give districts some flexibility in meeting the class size limit. Currently, public school districts have no choice but to create a new classroom – hiring or reassigning a teacher and moving students – when the class-size cap is exceeded, even if the maximum is exceeded by one student who enrolls the last week of school.
Both Williams and school board chair Sargeant emphasized for legislators the need for more state help in meeting infrastructure needs. Lottery revenue contributes only about $600,000 a year from funds earmarked for school construction and maintenance and that money goes to help the county pay down the debt from a 2007 school construction bond. The capital funds allocated from county taxes, at about $2 million a year, allow LCPS to meet really pressing needs but not to get ahead on the fixes required of aging buildings.
Williams praised the school construction grant program introduced by Mark Johnson, state schools superintendent, but bemoaned the fact that LCPS was not eligible to apply last year because of the county’s temporarily improved economic status. “We would hope for something for areas like eastern North Carolina that don’t have that strong tax base,” Williams said.
“Our income toward capital runs about $2 million a year,” Sargeant said. “Our debt service runs about $5 million a year. The county is doing all it can to help us with that, but the honest truth is that we have no real source for capital funds.”
Board of commissioners chair Hill added his endorsement of the list of priorities, for more state help with school funding and for what Sargeant called a “team effort” to keep LCPS’s improvement effort on track.
“I think we have developed over time an understanding between our county commissioners and the school board, our county leadership and our school leadership and our legislative team about the need to have a connection between all of our budgets and understanding each other,” Hill said.
While legislators did not respond directly to points on the priority list, Sen. Pate did offer an off-the-cuff assessment of the school district, the work of teachers and principals at the heart LCPS’s academic progress and the relationship of district administrators and elected officials.
“I agree with everything that’s going on here. You are doing a fabulous job for the children,” Pate said. “There’s one thing that I’ve noticed in this room that I haven’t seen before. There are a lot more smiles in here.”
To see the list of priorities as presented to legislators, see our post on the blog Discover LCPS here.