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Orange County commissioners adapt to mandate changing elementary class sizes

Mark Dorosin from the Orange County Board of Commissioners speaks at the Assembly of Governors at the Whitted Building in Hillsborough on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2019.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article had a misleading headline. The Orange County Board of Commissioners is changing elementary and pre-K class sizes in response to a mandate by the North Carolina General Assembly. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

CLARIFICATION: The article also misconstrued Penny Rich's comments on the cuts needed to accommodate smaller class sizes. Because of the General Assembly mandate, the Orange County Board of Commissioners may need to cut special learning classes, such as art and music, and replace these classrooms with core classes. 

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is working with the School Joint Action Committee (SJAC) to change elementary and pre-K class sizes in response to an unfunded state mandate.

Due to state legislation that created a four-year process to decrease K-3 class sizes, the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Technical Advisory Committee identified a need for the SJAC to meet to discuss options to implement school capacity changes. 

County Commissioner Penny Rich said the main issue is that there needs to be a reduced number of children in a classroom, but in order to do this, the district needs more classrooms.

Craig Benedict, Orange County planning and inspections director, gave a presentation discussing the issues of class capacity in schools and ways to fix these problems at the Board's meeting last Tuesday.

The SJAC is a short-term committee comprised of elected officials from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Boards of Education, Orange County Board of Education and Orange County Board of Commissioners. 

The Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (SAPFO) outlines criteria for maintaining a two-part system that starts by creating a plan that can project the number of students in each class. This helps predict when a new school will need to be built. 

The second part is issuing a certificate that estimates new development impacts.

An example would be reducing the teacher to student ratio from 1:20 to 1:17, resulting in a potential loss of 534 seats based on Benedict's calculations.

“Class size reductions reduce school capacity and show a need for new school capacity sooner rather than later,” Benedict said.

Some proposals to reduce class sizes, while maintaining the number of available seats, are to set up modular classrooms for music and art classes, renovate underutilized spaces and suspending the Certificate of Adequate Public Schools test until class sizes can be adjusted.

Rich said due to the General Assembly's class size mandate the Board of Commissioners are faced with having to take away special learning classes, such as art and music, and replace these classrooms with core classes — or build another school.

“However, to build another elementary school would cost between $35 and $50 million,” Rich said.

Board members said they still have many questions regarding this issue. County Commissioner Earl McKee questioned how many new schools may be needed and how much it would cost. 

“I’m just trying to figure out what we’re looking at in six years,” McKee said. 

Rich said the General Assembly won't provide funding, so building a new school places a burden on local taxpayers to pay for more schools. She said the General Assembly is putting emphasis on building more charter schools.

“We don’t disagree that we need to reduce class sizes, it’s just that it needs to come along with some funding,” Rich said.

Rich said the property tax is very low and school systems don’t get the kind of funding they need, yet they’re having another mandate put on them.

“You start increasing taxes and it becomes almost impossible for those folks to stay in Orange County, and then you lose your diversity,” she said. “It becomes an upper middle class, white, wealthy community as opposed to the folks who have lived here for hundreds of hundreds of years and they can no longer afford to live in the county that they were born in. It’s sad.”

There are also questions about whether there are other options such as having two teachers and more students in one class.

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The next step is to create a formal draft of the plan in March, Benedict said.

“The school board has to do what the state is telling them to do," Rich said. "There’s no options or you lose system-wide funding, your superintendent doesn’t get paid, and more really big circumstances if you don’t do what the state is telling you to do. So there are no options."

@DTHCityState |

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