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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Effects of class size increase; FY 2012 school budget battle

Today, I have two articles regarding the budget from the Gazette. One discusses the effects of class size increases, and the other describes the upcoming FY 2012 school budget. What's your opinion on the budget? Leave a comment!

Montgomery's largest class size increases seen at elementary, high school levels
By Andrew Ujifusa

Montgomery County Public Schools saw the largest jumps in average class size among its youngest and oldest students, according to a report from the schools superintendent published last month.

The average size of a kindergarten class grew by almost one student, from 18.8 students in the 2009-2010 school year to 19.7 students this year, Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast reported in a Dec. 21 memorandum to the Board of Education, while the average class size in grades 1 through 5 grew from 21.3 students to 22.2 students.

At the high school level, the average non-English class also jumped by nearly a student, from 25.2 students to 26.1 students, while the average high school English class size grew less, from 24.4 to 24.8 students. English classes are broken out because the classes are kept smaller due to the amount of writing that teachers must grade.

At the middle school level, average non-English class size grew from 24.6 to 25.2 students, while middle school English class size on average grew less than half a student, from 23.6 to 24 students.

Weast put the statistics in a positive light, writing to the school board: "It was expected that class sizes would grow by 1.0 student; therefore the results are better than expected. Elementary schools had the greatest increase in class size, because most of the higher-than-projected level of enrollment was at the elementary level."

Despite the school system's decision to increase its guidelines for the largest class sizes at all grade levels this year, the percentage of classes at some levels that the school system considers "oversized" still grew in some cases.

For example, the guideline for the maximum non-English high school class also grew from 32 students last year to 33 students, but the number of those classes classified as oversized grew from 270 last year to 285 this year. The number of "oversized" kindergarten classes only grew from six to 13, but that was after the maximum guideline increased from 25 to 26 students.

After the school system increased the maximum class size guideline for English middle school classes from 28 to 29, the number of those "oversized" classes dropped from 84 to 59. Non-English middle school classes considered "oversized" decreased from 186 to 153, after the maximum guideline increased from 32 to 33.
Class size has become one of the most passionate conversation topics related to county schools, after the school system announcement earlier this year that it projected the one-student increase in average size.
Montgomery County Public Schools has an enrollment of 144,458 students this school year, an increase of 2,681 from last year, at the same time that 182 teacher positions were cut.

Weast has raised the possibility that class sizes could increase again next year if the school system receives significant budget cuts. Enrollment is expected to top 145,000. He has proposed a $2.16 billion budget for next year, $59.6 million more than this year's budget.


Another battle shaping up this year over Montgomery County schools budget
by Andrew Ujifusa

After hearing school and county leaders argue over how much money was too much and not enough for education, one parent at a forum Monday said he was already predicting one bad outcome for next school year.

"I gather from the conversation that class size is going to go up," said Larry Edmonds of Burtonsville, the cluster coordinator for Paint Branch High School.

Edmonds spoke at a forum held by the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations at Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters in Rockville. Leaders discussed what should happen to the school system's operating budget next fiscal year as enrollment rises, resources continue to shrink and the possibilities loom that the state will cut K-12 education aid and dump more public employee pension costs on counties.

With his proposed $2.16 billion budget for fiscal 2012 on the table, including $82 million in additional money from the county, Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast counseled patience.
After noting that "no one here is an advocate on behalf of reducing staff in schools," Edmonds asked Weast whether the school system had a plan in place for determining which teachers should be let go first, if some have to be cut.

Weast replied that there was, but that the decision might have to be made in the latter stages of fiscal 2011, which ends June 30, because of uncertainty over state funding.

"We're just not going to know until maybe June this year, and that doesn't give us much time to do the processes we have to," said Weast, who is set to retire effective July 1.

Included in the list of the Parent-Teacher Association's priorities is no further increase in average class size and no reduction in academic intervention, special education and the number of reading teachers.
The average kindergarten class size was 19.7 students this year, up from 18.8 students last year. The largest class sizes this year are in non-English high school courses, with an average of 26.1 students, up from 25.2 students.

Several audience members, in support of the association's priorities, sported bright yellow shirts with a "Got Staff?" sticker pinned on the back, above the slogan "Smarter Growth for Smarter Kids."

The association's goal of preventing another class size increase dovetails with the 152 new classroom positions Weast plans to create in fiscal 2012 to keep up with a growing student population, projected to increase from 144,458 this year to more than 145,000 next year.

But the association's desire to stave off classroom staff cuts easily could wilt. When the school system's budget shrank by $96 million this fiscal year, 182 teacher positions eventually were cut.

While Weast assumes a $28 million increase in total state funds for the school system, school board member Philip Kauffman (At large) of Olney raised the possibility of a 5 percent cut in public school aid from the General Assembly. This fiscal year, the state provided $488 million in total funding.

"My fear is that we may be looking back on this time as the beginning of the end," Kauffman said.

County Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said Weast's budget, which assumes $1.497 billion in county funding, did not match with fiscal facts and the needs of police and fire departments, libraries and other county agencies.

"We are not going to fund his budget, because we don't have the money," Leventhal said.

He said the county should get credit now for past generosity, because in the decade prior to 2009 the county funded schools on a per-pupil basis by $577 million more than state law required. As a result, the school system qualified for state aid increases, which occur when enrollment increases.

Leventhal added that some form of pay cut was on tap for fiscal 2012 for all public employees, in the form or furloughs or other cuts. Raising taxes, meanwhile, simply would cause the county to fall further behind Fairfax County, Va., in the quest to attract new businesses, he said.

For fiscal 2011, all county employees except school system employees were required to take furlough days. County Council members did suggest teachers take furloughs on classroom planning days, but school officials balked at the idea.

"We're all going to take home less in our paychecks," Leventhal said.

But school board members said Weast's budget, while it carried a big price tag, simply kept the school system from losing ground.

Referring to the conflict between the school board and council last year, which culminated in the threat of a lawsuit by the school board against the council over cuts, school board member Laura Berthiaume (Dist. 2) of Rockville commented, "It's certainly better to do it with us than do it to us."

But without knowing what burdens state government will ask counties to bear, school board members said trying to read the tea leaves was very difficult.

Weast's budget still needs the school board's approval. The board will vote on the budget Feb. 8, after public hearings, hosted by the Board of Education, on Jan. 12 and Jan. 19.

Describing the substance of the conversation between the school board and council members, Ted Willard, the association's curriculum coordinator, observed, "This feels to me like a game of chicken with two school buses."

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