Budget cuts will lead to increases in class sizes

T he direct results of last week’s Board of Education cuts will be an increase in class sizes in fifth and sixth grades, as well as in some high school classes, but Superintendent James Watson said the board has been able to meet its priority of avoiding an impact on any specific programs.

In the long term, there will be more issues to face as the board complies with the state’s two-percent tax cap.

“We have to rethink how we provide services,” Watson said. “We are going to have to do more with less.”

Last week, the board voted to cut eight full-time positions. The cuts were made across the board and included instructional, non-instructional, and administrative positions.

The cuts included two full-time elementary teachers, so class sizes will increase at the elementary school. Watson said the impact will be most pronounced in grades five and six, but will remain steady in Kindergarten through fourth grade.

Whitehall Elementary Principal David St. Germain said the district made the decision to make the cuts at in the upper two grades to protect class sizes in the rest of the school.

“There’s more of an emphasis on younger students. The district has made that commitment at the primary level to make sure those students receive the attention they need so they don’t fall behind,” St. Germain said.

He said the average class size at the school is between 16 and 22 students per class but that number could reach 30 at the fifth grade level next year.

“Right now, the fifth grade has 49 students which is an average of about 16 per class and we project that will increase to 24 next year. This year’s fourth grade class has 60 students so next year’s (average) class will be around 30 students,” St. Germain said.

Watson said class sizes are also likely to increase in some of the high school labs and band groups, as well

“We are allocating our resources to have enough coverage in classes,” Watson said.

St. Germain said he’s never read or seen what educational experts consider an ideal class size to be, but the common thinking is the smaller the better. 

Teachers and faculty will be asked to do more. For instance, the districts remaining full time guidance counselor will be asked to assume some of the “paper and pencil” work for the districts other guidance counselor whose position is being made part-time.

“I’m confident in the faculty to do what’s best for the kids. We’ll make the best of it,” St. Germain said.

 

Cuts not unusual

Staff cuts are nothing new for the district.

In 2009, the district was forced to eliminate eight positions, including one full time elementary teacher, a special education teacher, and several aides and substitute positions.

The following year, the district cut four full time positions and last year they were forced to cut three positions. The district has done an admirable job of protecting some of those positions, reducing some to part time and not filling others after faculty retired. 

The reasons for the cuts are two-fold: one factor is a reduction in aid and the other is declining enrollment.

Last year many of the cuts were made because the school’s student population isn’t what it once was.

Ten years ago, Whitehall had more than 1,000 students and today that number is closer to 750.

Officials decided this year to roll back a fulltime guidance counselor to part time because enrollment has dropped off over the years.

But most of this year’s cuts had less to do with declining enrollment and more to do with declining aid.

“Some of this is because enrollment is down, but all the full time positions were eliminated this year because the aid was not there,” Watson said.

St. Germain said Whitehall and many area districts were in uncharted waters.

“We’ve never experienced something this deep before. This economy is new ground for many of us,” he said.

The district lost nearly $1.4 million in aid last year and administrators were optimistic that some of that would be restored after Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to restore four percent of that aid in this year’s budget. However after receiving numbers from the state, administrators discovered they would receive only $22,000 more in aid, the equivalent of three tenths of a percent.

Whitehall Teachers Association president Chris Palmer said the state aid formulas are out of whack and aren’t equitable. 

“The WTA understands the difficulty the Board of Education and administration face in creating a balanced budget that complies with the two percent tax cap, which is law. Mr. Watson and the Board of Education have consistently presented a budget that is sensitive to the needs of the tax payers, while protecting the instructional program.

The state aid formulas are the real problem. The district is only going to receive an additional $22,000 for the 2012-2013 school year. For a small rural district that formula simply does not work.”

In order to comply with tax cap, the district has to find a way to fill a $778,000 hole. Between the cuts, which administrators estimate will save the district $420,000 and the aid restored by the state, officials still have to find a way to cut an additional $336,000 in the coming months.

 

Looking at other aspects

Watson said the district will begin to look at other areas moving forward, including arts, music, physical education, sports and home-education.

He said the guidance office is currently gathering student course requests and administrators will look at those numbers to determine exactly what direction to go next.

If student requests are very low for one course or program, administrators may consider that an area they could cut.

“We have quite a ways to go. It’s not an exact science. Right now, we are making the assertion of a comparable course load.”

While the goal is to protect instructional programs, Watson said it can be difficult to make cuts in other areas because they can offer significant value to students.

He said not all students are “academic kids” in the traditional sense of the term. Some students rely on art and music programs to help complete sequences to graduate because they may not be as strong in areas such as chemistry or math.

“We need to find things they can all be successful in,” Watson said.

At the last meeting, Watson asked Palmer if the WTA was going to make any concessions to help cut costs and possibly save jobs.

Palmer wouldn’t discuss specific areas the union may be willing to give back, but said they are open to discussion.

“We continue to be willing to work with the district in maintaining instructional programs while being fiscally responsible to the tax payers,” he said.

 At the high school

The recent cuts will have less of an impact on classes at the high school. Principal Kelly McHugh said there will remain three sections per grade and class size will remain relatively stable.

“There will very few classes that are over 22 kids. Most classes average about 20 students which is a very reasonable class size, McHugh said, adding that number is even lower at the higher grades because students take different classes or are involved with BOCES programs.

She said the main priority is to maintain opportunities for students to take accelerated programs.

“We still want to promote college level classes. We want kids to be able to leave here with college credit. We want to make sure students who are interested in accelerated programs still have those opportunities.”

Officials will remain creative in keeping advanced programs available to students. For example, the school has helped students design independent study programs in the past, a practice that is likely to continue.

McHugh said the cuts in the guidance office were disheartening because both counselors were extremely hard working and connected very well with the students.

Although a decision on how work would be redistributed has yet to be determined, McHugh said the faculty will need to be creative in spreading out duties so both counselors can maintain their current case loads.

“We want families to know that students will get the resources they need,” she said. “Our main priority is to make sure the kids are taken care of.”

 

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