Class size fix leaves more unfinished state schoolwork

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The General Assembly finally passed a bill to at least ease North Carolina’s class size crisis, and overall, it’s pretty good.

It does not solve a lot of long-term problems, though, and it illustrates what’s wrong with the current dog-and-pony show in Raleigh.

For those who came in late: Two years ago, legislators mandated lower classroom sizes for kindergarten through grade 3 — a good thing.

Unfortunately, the majority Republicans — who used to like to rail against “unfunded federal mandates” — provided no money for the extra teachers and extra classrooms this mandate will require.

School officials, here and elsewhere, were rushing around, shaving budgets and moving students around to meet the state rules.

HB 90, which passed Tuesday, solves a lot of that problem. The mandated shrinkage in class size will be eased in over four years.

And the legislators added a $61 million “recurring funding allocation” to pay for art, music and PE teachers. Many of these teachers faced having their positions eliminated to fund the class-size reductions.

That’s one crisis averted.

But another one is bubbling. More students are moving into high-growth areas of the state. Meanwhile, after years of budget-paring during recession, many school buildings are in need of an overhaul.

The N.C. Blue Ribbon Study Commission estimates the state will need $8 billion in the next five years for new school facilities, maintenance and renovation.

The Honorables aren’t putting a cent toward this, leaving construction and maintenance to local school systems. That’s a problem. At the county level, schools rely heavily on property taxes, which hit the fixed-income elderly unfairly.

Also, poor, rural North Carolina counties, with their shrunken tax bases, can barely afford to meet school payrolls, much less fund a building boom. Schools in this state will become even more unequal than they already are.

Then, there’s the way HB 90 came to the floor. Republicans in the legislature also attached all sorts of unrelated provisions to the bill, mostly aimed at Gov. Roy Cooper, a confessed Democrat and the Republicans’ current favorite target.

One provision revives the Republicans’ old idea of merging the state elections and ethics boards, taking both out of the governor’s control.

They tried that before, but the state Supreme Court ruled that bill unconstitutional. The GOP bill-writers tweaked it a little bit: The boards will still be merged, but under a panel where neither party has a majority, and the governor has a little leeway in appointments. That’s not too objectionable.

The Honorables also took potshots at Cooper’s “pipeline slush fund.”

Negotiating with builders of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Cooper had obtained $58 million to pay for environmental impacts. Some funds would also go toward economic development in the mostly poor, eastern counties on the pipeline’s route.

Republicans are shocked, shocked by this, possibly because they didn’t control the fund and possibly because they wanted some mud to sling at Cooper. So, they grabbed most of the money and reallocated it to schools.

This isn’t the first time GOP floor managers have hung pet provisions on key legislation like an unholy Christmas tree and slammed it through the legislature with few hearings and minimal debate. But it’s the best deal on the table right now, and Cooper said he will sign it.

Make no mistake, though: Unfunded mandates, repairing far-reaching laws that should have been thought out better to begin with, and arming every piece of legislation with political ammo is probably not what the authors of the N.C. constitution had in mind with the mandate for “better government of this State.”

It needs to stop.