Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fighting to keep class size down

In 2003 as part of the operating referendum campaign, the board of education made a commitment to parents to reduce average class size, and the 2004 Board of education, on which I served, passed a resolution instructing the superintendent to budget so as to keep that commitment. When I ran for the board in 2003, there were a lot of people who were very skeptical of that the commitment would last for long, because they simply did not believe that the Board of Education and superintendent would be willing, or able, to actually keep the commitment to use operating referendum funds for class size reduction. Partly this skepticism was a matter of trust. But also, it derived from simple economics. The amount of money in the referendum was, and is, a small percentage of our teaching budget. You cannot keep class sizes down with operating referendum money alone, you have to do it by managing the rest of your budget.

The goal to keep our student to teacher ratio down involves swimming against a heavy current of financial challenges. Last year, the Anoka School District reduced their licensed positions (primarily teachers) by 74 and their non-licensed staff by almost 50. Huge cuts are happening all over the State of Minnesota. According to survey released by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts in September of 2010, Metro area school districts have been forced to lay off almost 1,700 employees and cut more than $285 million in spending over the past two years because of cuts to operating budgets. The survey found that the second consecutive year of a state funding freeze and shifts in aid payments resulted in 830 staff layoffs in the 2010-11 school year alone. AMSD members are projecting a $187 million budget gap going into the 2011-12 school year based on the current funding levels. These funding cuts are larger than those for the past two years and would likely result in even more layoffs, increased class sizes, and even more drastic steps.

The Board of Education has been tracking our efforts to keep class sizes from growing ever since 2004, and you will find the statistics in our annual budget this year. When we measure teacher-student ratios, we look at two measures, called ISPR and TLSPR. In my view, the most important ratio is called the "Instructional Staff-Pupil Ratio." (ISPR). This is a measure that compares the number of students ato classroom teachers only. A lower ratio means that a teacher has fewer students in the classroom, on the average. Obviously, some classes are above the average and others below, and typically, we do better in the lower grades than the upper grades. When citizens passed our 2003 levy, the board pledged to bring the ISPR down, and we've striven to keep that pledge for the last 7 years. That ratio has fallen from 27+ in 2003 to 23 in 2008-2009.

The other ratio that we monitor is TLSPR, which measures "total licensed staff-pupil ratio). That ratio includes non-classroom teachers (primarily special education), counselors and so on. That ratio was 13:1 in 2003 and has risen to 15:1 in 2008-2009, primarily as a result of cost controls that the superintendent and board imposed on special education. Still, our TLSPR is as low or lower than the TLSPR for the other 9 school districts that the State usually compares us to. Our district is putting a relatively high proportion of its budget into teachers and we are making an effort to avoid doing what Anoka had to do last year, that is, to make slashing cuts in the teaching force to make ends meet.

We've been able to maintain the ISPR established in 2004 with the help of thje operating referendum, which is substantially below the state average for districts comparable to St. Cloud. One of the great struggles that we face in the coming year is whether we can continue to manage our budget so as to continue to keep class sizes down . One thing that might help us to accomplish that objective is if we can continue the recent trend towards upward enrollment. As I pointed out yesterday, seven years ago, our district had been losing enrollment at the rate of about 200 students per year. Since 2005, our overall enrollment has stabilized, but our elementary school enrollment is up by about 275 students, which may be the beginning of a significant turnaround. Elementary enrollment at Clearview, Kennedy, and Madison are up a combined 300 students. As I said, this is not happening by accident. Each of these schools has been engaged in a major effort to link actively with their separate communities by providing educational programs that these communities want.

Another key will be if the legislature and Governor reverse the practice begun by Governor Pawlenty 8 years ago to shift money out of special education so as to sort of hide the true magnitude of underfunding in education. The genius of this idea is that when the state pulls money out of special education, the maintenance of effort law prevents local districts from making compensating cuts in special education. They have to pull the money out of regular education. When local districts cut regular education, the Governor can say, that's not my fault, look at the money we provided regular education. This practice of robbing the special education budget to keep the regular education funding budget in balance has been tremendously harmful to our school district, in particular, and to other school districts that are carrying the bulk of special education responsibilities for their region. If the new legislature and governor continue this practice of using special education reductions in this way, we are going to be in for some really rough sledding in the next couple of years.

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