Durham County

Durham Public Schools worry about state mandate to lower class size. See why.

Jon Long (center), the Durham Public Schools’ executive director of construction and capital planning, talks with school board members Natalie Beyer (left) and Steve Unruhe (right) before the start of a recent DPS Board of Education work session.
Jon Long (center), the Durham Public Schools’ executive director of construction and capital planning, talks with school board members Natalie Beyer (left) and Steve Unruhe (right) before the start of a recent DPS Board of Education work session. gchildress@heraldsun.com

More Durham Public Schools students could end up in mobile classrooms next year because of a mandate to lower class sizes for students in kindergarten through third-grade.

Due to the mandate, which effectively shrinks school capacity, DPS will need an additional 63 classrooms to accommodate nearly 1,178 students.

So, school officials might have to turn to mobile classrooms to create more space, as school leaders grab rooms used by other programs, for example resource room that are used to teach English to immigrant students, and convert them to traditional classrooms.

Jon Long, the district’s executive director of construction and capital planning, told school board members at a recent work session that the district could possibly get away with 41 additional classrooms if it can use existing mobile units.

But that could create an expensive problem for DPS if the trailers aren’t where they are needed and have to be moved.

“Just to put a little real life to that equation, this year Forest View [Elementary School], which is already at 116 percent capacity, we were scheduled to move two mobile units there from Pearsontown [Elementary School],” said Aaron Beaulieu, the district’s CFO who is serving as interim superintendent. “The cost to move two, old, dilapidated mobile units to Forest View was $250,000.”

DPS received only two bids to move the trailers — one for $198,200 and another for $360,000 — covering the move and basic installation.

Assuming DPS accepted the low bid, officials estimated the district would have had to spend more than $50,000 for design work for construction permits, to meet plumbing code requiring a sheltered walkway to the nearest bathrooms, installing telephone and computers and buying desks and other furniture needed for the mobile classroom.

“We pulled the brakes on it [moving the trailer],” Long said, adding that DPS found other ways to handle the space crunch at Forest View.

State lawmakers lowered school district average class sizes for K-3 in 2018 to roughly 17 students, compared with 21 children in the 2016-17 school year.

Specifically, the mandate calls for one teacher per 18 students in kindergarten, one teacher per 16 students in first-grade and one teacher per 17 students in second and third grades.

The 63 classrooms DPS anticipates will be needed are the equivalent of two new elementary schools.

And there would be a cost associated with outfitting those classrooms with desks, chairs and other items

The class size mandate will also require new teachers if DPS is to keep all of its “specials” or art, music and physical education classes, which districts across the state feared they would lose as a result of the mandate.

“At a bare, bare minimum, it’s approximately 90 additional teachers that will be needed to be funded at the district,” Beaulieu said.

Long said some schools are already over capacity.

“Forest View [Elementary School] is already doing art-on-a-cart,” Long said, referring to the practice of art teachers placing art supplies on a cart and moving the supplies from class to class.

Beaulieu said the cost to move the trailers is just one example of the significant fiscal consequences that follow the mandate to lower class size.

“As we start to adjust to the real life consequences of all these issues, it shows you there’s a huge price tag, there’s a huge capital need, there’s a number of things we’re going to have to address,” Beaulieu said. “Schools have shrunk because of the requirement [to lower class sizes].”

The school board took no action on Long’s report but made note to share the information with the Durham Board of County Commissioners at their next joint meeting because the mandate will have a large impact on DPS’ budget.

Long said using existing mobile classrooms to reduce the number of classrooms needed simply doesn’t work if the trailers aren’t where they are needed.

“That means we might have mobiles over at this school site and we need them at this site, so it’s still messed up,” Long said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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