School board weighs cost of smaller class sizes
Updated 7:51 am, Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Board of Education members are considering changing the school district's class-size guidelines to lower the maximum number of students in each second-grade classroom -- a plan that would add $81,000 to next year's education budget.
With the revised guidelines, each of the school district's five elementary schools could not have more than one second-grade section of more than 22 students, according to a plan presented by board Vice Chairman Michael McGovern at a Monday meeting. If two second-grade classes were projected to hit that total, another section would be formed to prevent a second class of 22 students.
If McGovern's plan were adopted, it would align the school district's second-grade class-size guidelines with those for kindergarten and first grade, which already have a limit of one section of more than 22 pupils. In contrast, the district's guidelines currently allow each elementary school to have one second-grade section with as many as 25 pupils before another section must be formed. The school district's practice of limiting the number of large classes in elementary schools is also known as its "break-point" policy.
"I think second grade is a very important year from a developmental point-of-view," McGovern said. "There are a lot of good reasons to keep that second-grade class as small as possible ... I think it's appropriate and worthwhile to put this into our budget for next year."
Enacting a 22-student limit for second-grade classes would require the creation of one additional second-grade section, according to current projections for 2013-14 enrollment. That extra section would require an additional $81,000 in next year's education budget -- $60,000 in salary and $10,000 in benefits for one additional full-time teacher and $11,000 for other teaching staff for the new section.
Other board members backed McGovern's proposal.
"The very highest performing districts in the Tri-State Consortium [of school districts in the metropolitan New York area] also had class sizes of 22 or lower," said Board of Education Secretary Michael Gordon, a vocal proponent of smaller class sizes. "That to me said if we want to be among the highest-performing differentiators in elementary school, that we'd try to lower that number."
Several parents at Monday's meeting also expressed support for lower second-grade class sizes.
"My daughter was up to 25 [in her second-grade class]; it was extremely difficult for the teacher, as well as the children," said Anne Spencer, the mother of a third-grader at Greens Farms Elementary School. "The kids were all over the place with different levels of development. It was tough."
"Fundamentally, everyone would support lowering class sizes," Baer said, "but we're also stuck with a very tight budget. And I'd like to see a much more robust discussion about class sizes at the high school, before we talk about second grade. We have a lot of kids at the high school in classes of 29 and 30 kids."
Class sizes in Westport public schools in recent years have been debated by school board members and parents. During the board's budget proceedings last year, Gordon unsuccessfully proposed to increase education spending by $180,000 to reduce class sizes. At a May 2012 meeting, another effort by Gordon to set lower class-size limits was rebuffed by board colleagues, who expressed worries about the cost of his plan. But Gordon's position on class sizes did appear to gain support from a majority of parents who spoke at board meetings during the review hearings last year for this year's budget.
Like last year, board members are weighing the fiscal impact of changing class-size guidelines. The potential spending increase for McGovern's proposal could be offset by several reductions to Landon's proposed $104.7 million budget being considered by the board, including a possible $500,000 cut to Landon's recommended allotment next year to the school district's health-insurance reserve.
Board of Education members, meanwhile, already face pressure from other town officials to rein in education spending next year.
"I am concerned that the proposed Board of Education budget is too high, continues to produce a result that, in effect, cause insufficient funds to be available for the town budget and does not reflect analysis and recommendations as to how Westport could come to grips with the costs of education," Representative Town Meeting member Don Bergmann, District 1, said at the Monday meeting. "My thinking and concern could well cause me to vote against the 2013-14 school budget."
At the school board's Jan. 22 meeting, Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner said he and his colleagues hope for a 2013-14 education budget that does not raise spending by more than 2 percent compared to the current year. Landon's proposed spending package, however, seeks an approximately 5 percent increase.
The Board of Education did not take any action Monday on McGovern's second-grade class-size proposal. The panel's members could vote on it next week, if McGovern makes a motion to add the $81,000 allocation to Landon's proposed 2013-14 budget.
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