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Paynesville Press - March 19, 2003

Teachers protest class size increases

By Michael Jacobson

Two dozen elementary school teachers attended last week's school board meeting to lobby the school board not to reduce the number of elementary sections as a cost-saving measure.

The reduction of three teaching positions is a key part in the administration's proposal to reduce the district's spending by $150,000 for the 2003-04 school year. In addition to an elementary teacher, administration has also proposed cutting one sixth grade teacher, reducing the sections in that grade to three, and reducing one teacher from the middle and high school according to the need for classes.

The district has already received seven retirement requests from teachers, meaning the district will just not rehire for certain teaching positions next year if the cuts are implemented.

But reducing staff means larger class sizes. The teachers are empathetic to the need to make budget cuts, said elementary teacher Barb Werlinger, but they do not want the board to neglect the lower grades. "The elementary staff have very great concerns with the proposed increase in class sizes, especially in grades K-3," said Werlinger.

Werlinger cited studies that showed the lasting benefits of smaller class sizes in the lowest grades, which then carried over to the upper grades. "Even as they go to larger classes, they do better because the foundation is there," she said.

Time spent in classroom management does not increase proportionately to increases in class sizes, said elementary physical education teacher Bill Virant.

Right now, he estimated he spends three minutes out of every half hour lesson in classroom management, including positive reinforcement. With an increase in class size from 20 to 28, he expects his classroom management time to double at least, which would add up to over eight hours of classroom time over the course of the year.

"We're not afraid to work hard. That's not the issue," said Virant. "We go home exhausted. We want to spend our time teaching."

Werlinger, who teaches math in the fifth grade, said the larger class sizes limit one-on-one attention in her class. She used long division for an example. If she introduces the topic for ten minutes, she has 22 minutes left as the kids work, which gives her less than one minute per student, though long division problems may take them more than a minute apiece.

Elementary teacher Joyce Anderson was especially concerned about the loss of reteaching time in the classroom due to larger class sizes. She thought this was scary because the kids who need this the most are the ones in the most danger of being left behind.

Small class sizes are also important in complying with the new federal requirements of "No Child Left Behind" and in marketing the school district, said Werlinger.

"I daresay one of the first areas parents will ask is what are your class sizes. What are your student/ teacher ratios? What kind of personal attention is my child going to get? And as a parent, I would be asking those questions," she said.

If the district can keep its enrollment in the lower grades, they will most likely continue their schooling here, noted Virant.

School board chair Pat Flanders replied that similar arguments can be made for minimizing losses to open enrollment of middle and high school students, who may leave if their extracurricular opportunities or electives are not available.

Administration has proposed splitting a teacher between the first and second grades, using this extra teacher to keep class sizes lower for reading and math instruction, but the teachers were concerned that this arrangement might not work. Werlinger said fifth graders need several months to get comfortable with switching rooms, let alone first and second graders. "A student and a teacher really need to bond because they won't trust that person to learn from until the bond is there," said Werlinger.

The teachers - who have met three times since the budget adjustments were proposed - said keeping class sizes to 20 or below is important.

Flanders said he agreed with everything the teachers said, but the difficult part is the board still needs to make budget cuts.

The elementary teachers said that they would really like the district to return to having four sections in grades K-3, which would mean adding teachers, which Flanders thought was not possible.

"I disagree," said board member Tami Stanger. "We passed a referendum and part of that was keeping class sizes small in the elementary school."

For kindergarten, the district has not decided if it will have three or four sections next year. This year, 76 kindergarten students were divided into sections of 25 or 26 students. Next year, though, kindergarten enrollment could reach 81 students, which would require four sections.

Board member Deb Glenz said the proposed budget adjustments did not take into consideration that the elementary school has been hit hard the past few years. "Why are we kicking the legs out from under the stool?" she asked.

Later, Glenz said that there wasn't a person in the room who was not in favor of small classes, so she wondered why the district was considering a teacher cut in the elementary school. Administration should come up with Plan B, she said.

Board member Mark Dingmann asked if ability grouping should be reconsidered, especially if the district has to have larger class sizes in the elementary school. Elementary teacher Connie Backes, who taught using classes grouped by ability, said there were advantages and disadvantages with ability grouping. She thinks mixed classes, even of larger sizes, are still best.

A point of contention in the debate was how much the district will save from teacher retirements. According to numbers presented to the school board, the district will save $50,000 by not rehiring a full-time teacher, including paying retirement benefits next year.

If the district hires a replacement, it should still save $12,000 per teacher, assuming it can hire a replacement with three years of experience or less. Flanders said the district can gamble on this, but they will not know their financial numbers for sure until their next audit in November, meaning if they make a mistake now and cut too little they may end up firing someone they just hired next year.

Not taking the opportunity presented by retirements to reduce staff is how the district got in trouble financially in the first place, said superintendent Howard Caldwell in an interview with the Press. "Look at where it got us," he said, referring to the Statutory Operating Debt that the district just escaped. "We're still trying to make up ground in these lean times."

He defended the administration's proposal for budget adjustments, saying that it keeps intact all the programs in the district. The cost is higher class sizes, but the administration tried to address this, he said, by being creative and splitting a teacher between two grades. "Is it ideal?" he asked. "No. None of it is ideal. We are not living in ideal times."