Several Cobb County Board of Education members spoke out last week against a proposal to increase the amount of students allowed in each classroom, suggesting the increase to eight students above the state-required maximum would put too much pressure on teachers.
However, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and Chief Academic Officer Amy Krause said the proposal — which calls for three more students allowed per classroom compared to last year — will only serve to cover a small amount of cases, keep the school district from jeopardizing state funding and maintain expectations under the approved fiscal 2013-14 budget.
School districts are required to approve and submit a class-size waiver to the state prior to the beginning of each school year to allow any additional students per classroom over the state-determined maximum allowance.
The issue was taken up during Wednesday’s work session and will be up for discussion during next Thursday’s regular meeting, beginning at 7 p.m.
If no version of the proposed resolution is approved, the district may drain every dollar out of its general fund, Hinojosa said.
“We have to do this before the school year starts, so if eight (students) is not acceptable, we’ll consider an amendment, but we need to have a waiver, otherwise our budget will not work,” he said, after board member Scott Sweeney asked what the budget impact would be if the waiver is not approved.
Hinojosa told the board the resolution is typically approved every year and aligns with the adopted the fiscal 2013-14 budget, which calls for an additional five students over the state requirement for elementary, middle and high school class sizes.
Going up to eight in the waiver application would simply allow more flexibility, he said.
“If during a transitional period, we happen to have more than a certain number of students … we would not capture state aid during the time we exceeded that number,” Hinojosa said. “This is just the number to help us stay within our budget.”
Concerns over larger class sizes
Board Chair Randy Scamihorn and board members Kathleen Angelucci and David Banks voiced concern over increasing the number over last year’s maximum allowance, which varies for different grade levels.
Scamihorn said he thought enrollment “flatlined” last year and was curious as to the proposed increase with the leveling of student attendance.
“I’m a little leery of that much flexibility,” Scamihorn said.
Krause said if approved, the resolution wouldn’t immediately allow principals to add an additional eight students per classroom.
“We have already determined the budget and we have already given teacher allotments to schools,” Krause said. “If we go over by a student or two students, we jeopardize funding for that entire class of students. What we want to make sure is that we have a window that allows us to not do that.”
The allotments for the 2013-14 school year for Cobb Schools are as follows: Kindergarten classrooms will have 24 students to one teacher and one paraprofessional; grades 1-3 will have 25 students per teacher; grades 4-5 will have 32 students per teacher; grades 6-8 will have 33 students per teacher and grades 9-12 will have 35 students per teacher.
“That’s what schools are planning off of and that’s really the expectation,” Krause said. “And this (waiver) is for those few instances that they may have to go beyond.”
Hinojosa gave an example from last year, wherein a high school class exceeded the maximum allowance of five additional students in October. The teacher said he didn’t want to split up the class late in the semester, and the district allowed the class to stay intact at the risk of losing state funding, he said.
“Last year, we got caught a little bit,” Hinojosa said. “That’s why we’re asking for three more instead of the normal five we budgeted for and asked for.”
After eliminating 182 teaching positions through retirements and resignations under the 2013-14 budget, Hinojosa said both middle and high school classes should expect an additional student per classroom.
“At the elementary level, we’re trying not to add any, but because of scheduling and (Early Intervention Programs) and allotments we have to work through a lot of those things,” he said.
Krause tried to ease fears by providing the numbers of class size increases over the last couple of years. In 2011-12, there was no increase in the average class size. This past year, average class sizes increased by two students. Next fall, she anticipates average class size will increase by one student, and only for middle and high schools.
Scamihorn asked whether there are checks and balances to ensure the additional students per classroom are kept to a minimum.
Krause said all of the schools work with their respective area assistant superintendent and Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Hungerford to keep sizes down.
“They contact us right away and tell us, ‘We’re over,’” Hinojosa said. “That’s what triggers the response — they are very much into checks and balances on that.”
Banks said he shared the same reservations as Scamihorn.
“I just have some real concerns about these classroom sizes and I think I’ve made my point very clear many, many times that these classroom sizes — this board needs to focus on how we’re going to get these classroom sizes back down, not increase them,” Banks said.
Angelucci said she felt more comfortable only increasing the waiver request by one student over last year’s five-student waiver.
“I’m really more comfortable with six,” Angelucci said. “It just sits in the back of my mind and what concerns me is the ability to go that high. It just really worries me. And I know that the teachers are very sensitive to that right now — the danger of increasing class size.”
Enrollment may increase
Chris Ragsdale, deputy superintendent of operations, said the district is anticipating a slight increase in enrollment, clarifying Scamihorn’s comment and a separate comment by Banks that enrollment likely would not shift, and potentially even decline.
“The increase we experienced last year might not be the anomaly we thought,” Ragsdale said.
In September, the board unanimously voted to hire an additional 30 teachers to help relieve overcrowded classrooms throughout the district, with the school system reporting almost 1,300 more students than projected at almost every campus. The move required taking $3 million from the district’s reserve fund to pay salaries for the new teachers, as funds from the state to cover the increase weren’t anticipated until this spring.
Two board members used fluctuating enrollment to defend their support of the resolution as-is.
“We very well could see enrollment increases,” Sweeney said. “We don’t know what that number is until all the students are enrolled and one of the things is we don’t want to be caught off guard and surprised by a larger number of students enrolling.”
Board member Tim Stultz, who said schools in his district and throughout Smyrna are seeing higher enrollment, agreed with Sweeney. Stultz expressed concern after Scamihorn suggested a compromise of reducing the waiver request to a maximum of six or seven students.
“If this is being done strictly from funding perspective … we don’t want to short ourselves any chance (to obtain the money),” Stultz said. “Going from eight to seven wouldn’t be that much of a difference except for that fact that it would short us the possible future funding. If we’re looking at it for the budget, obviously we would much rather be responsible.”
After not hearing a “groundswell” of support for changing the number from eight, Scamihorn said he would put the matter on the next meeting’s agenda for discussion as originally proposed.