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Originally posted January 31, 2012
Class sizes swell as state aid declines, enrollment rises
BY KIM ARCHER Tulsa World Staff Writer
(Reprinted with permission. This is not an endorsement.)
Class size remains a critical issue in some Tulsa-area school districts as they struggle to recover from successive state budget cuts over the past few years.
Oklahoma has had class-size restrictions in place since 1990 when House Bill 1017 became law and mandated class sizes of 20 for kindergarten to sixth grade. But as state budget shortfalls grew, the state Legislature in 2010 placed a two-year moratorium on imposing penalties on districts that fail to comply with class-size restrictions.
"We really try to protect class size, but this particular year we've seen some of our classes at some of our elementary sites on the high side of 25," said Claremore Superintendent Mike McClaren. "We really try to keep those down below 25."
Claremore lost more than $5 million to budget cuts the past three years and is operating with 25 fewer teachers, McClaren said.
"We're hoping we can turn that tide, but it depends on what this legislative cycle looks like," he said.
In past years, Union Assistant Superintendent Kathy Dodd said she could hire a teacher based on pre-enrollment figures to ensure appropriate class sizes before school started.
But budget cuts in recent years have left no room for additional hires and have forced Union and other school districts to wait until the school year begins to adjust class sizes.
That often means teachers are shuffled from one class to another, even one grade to another, to balance class sizes after school has begun, she said.
"It's been detrimental to students, and it's not been appreciated by parents. It's usually disruptive to the learning process," Dodd said.
She said the average class size for prekindergarten to fifth grade at Union is 23, with classes ranging from 18 to 29 students.
"On one side, you look at the raw number and it appears that we've been able to manage with a decreased budget because class sizes are lower," Dodd said. "But we would be reporting much larger class sizes if we hadn't spent a significant amount of time protecting the classroom by eliminating other services and other expenses."
As other districts have done, Union has significantly reduced its pool of teachers' aides, eliminated some electives and taken additional steps to protect sizes for core classes.
"All of the additional support services that personalize the school experience for students have been eliminated in order to get the lowest student-to-teacher ratio in a regular classroom," Dodd said. "To say that we are doing more with less is a colossal understatement."
Jenks is particularly struggling this year, having seen an influx of 400 additional students while cutting $2 million in salaries, said Rob Miller, principal at Jenks Middle School.
He said he understands parents' concerns and said school administrators are worried, as well.
"Our state aid is back to 2004 levels, yet our district has gained nearly 1,700 students over that time," Miller said. "Without increases to state aid in future years, we will continue to be challenged by very large class sizes."
Some of the district's kindergarten classes have as many as 28 students, and 30 or more middle school students fill classrooms with a 26-student capacity, he said. The middle school began the year with six fewer teachers.
"It's a tough challenge," Miller said. "Our teachers do a fantastic job. It is stressful though, and it's frustrating."
As a district, 95 percent of the budget goes to personnel, he said. "There's not a lot more we can cut."
Mid-year adjustments are put into the district's fund balance (similar to a savings account), which has fallen to perilously low levels, to use for the first month's payroll next year, Miller said.
"And it can't get below that because you're not even able to make your payroll for the first month of school because the state hasn't given their initial payment," he said. "So you've got to have some money in reserve to make your first set of payrolls."
Broken Arrow class sizes aren't ideal, but they are manageable, school officials say. And Owasso actually saw a decline in enrollment since the first of the year.
"I guess I would say that, except for a few isolated classrooms perhaps, that we are holding our own at this point of the school year," said Owasso Assistant Superintendent Lynn Johnson.
Dodd said some people don't realize the negative effects crowded classes can have on teaching and learning.
"The biggest impact on student achievement is a high-quality teacher, period," she said. "But that teacher has to have a small enough class to allow him or her to individualize instruction to students.
"To say class size doesn't matter, I think, is oversimplifying the problem."
Enrollment in Oklahoma public schools growing
Annual enrollment numbers provided to the Oklahoma State Department of Education by each public school district and charter school site in Oklahoma, show that pre-kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment for the current school year is 666,150 - an increase of 6,535 students over the 2009-10 school year and 27,128 more students than five years ago.
Oklahoma public school enrollment:
Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education