In a meeting that was at times tense and emotional, the board of trustees voted 4-3 Wednesday to ask the state for permission to increase class sizes beyond what the law allows in grades four through eight.
It's seeking permission to average as many as 33 students in those grades, which would save the district $10 million. “We are now at the stage—at the unfortunate stage—that there aren’t many other ways,” Superintendent Joseph Farley told the board in reference to solving the district's looming budget deficit.
If granted approval from the state, the board is not obligated to enact the class size increases, said Ron Lebs, deputy superintendent for business and support services.
State law requires class sizes in those grades to average no more than 29.9 students per teacher. If a district’s average exceeds that number, it faces stiff penalties. The only way to get around the law is to ask the state Board of Education for a waiver.
Farley told the board that Capo needs the waiver to give itself more options as it considers how to plan for $20 million in cuts a worst-case scenario would require.
The district finds itself with only three options, Farley said:
- A reduction in employee salary and benefits
- Class size increases
- Furlough days
Because the potential budget gap is so large, a combination of all three is probably needed, he added.
But board members struggled with the request.
“Five years ago, the constituents specifically asked me to worry and be concerned about the class sizes,” said Trustee Anna Bryson. "Although I understand the terrible vise that has control of all of the school districts … I will have to hope we can find other ways.”
Trustee Lynn Hatton, with two children in middle school, said she needed to detach herself from the emotions she feels as a mother. As an educator, she knows that studies show that class size has little impact on student performance.
Hatton cited a book, Visible Learning, by John Hattie, that summarizes more than 800 “meta-analyses” of student achievement. Class size came in at 106 on factors that influence student learning.
“It’s not a significant impact to their learning,” she said. She called upon the public to contact their state legislators and urge more support for education.
Bryson noted, however, “The personal feelings of the parents in this district are not in alignment with the research.”
“No matter how you slice it,” said Trustee Ellen Addonizio, “it looks like we’re adding more students” to the classroom. She lamented that the board has yet to hold a budget workshop in which trustees could express their priorities for the coming year. “It is the end of April. We need a budget workshop.”
Farley said that the state’s May revision of the budget may include further bad news for schools. “We’re hoping the $20 million is the worst-case scenario.”
“Just remember, Dr. Farley, hope is not a plan,” Trustee Sue Palazzo said.
Just before Trustee Gary Pritchard, who runs the board meetings, called for a motion, Bryson declared, “This is very painful.”
About 20 seconds of silence passed before Pritchard made the motion himself. After board President Jack Brick seconded it, the motion passed, 4-3, with Addonizio, Bryson and Palazzo voting against. Those trustees who voted for the motion said they did so regretfully.
Two members of the public spoke. Lori Abbott read a letter from Michele Langham, president of the Capistrano Unified Council of Parent-Teacher-Student Associations. She urged the board to put the students’ interest first.
“As PTA, we have a responsibility to speak up for the children who have no voice of their own,” Abbott read.
Dave Sherwood, a Ladera Ranch resident and parent in the district, said that by considering the waiver, “it appears to be the first priority as you try to close the budget gap. I think that’s outrageous.”
Other school board news:
The board voted 5-2, with Addonizio and Palazzo dissenting, to because funding for their positions is tenuous. The 28 employees fill 16.45 full-time jobs, several which involving working with English language learners.
"The district regrets having to bring this item forward," said Jodee Brentlinger, assistant superintendent of personnel services. All of the employees' positions are paid with restricted funds.
For example, Proposition 10 money, which helps children at infancy through pre-kindergarten prepare for school, has been cut by two-thirds, Brentlinger said. On the list of those to get pink-slipped are a supervisor of "school readiness" and a preschool resource teacher.
Correction: This article corrects an earlier version which stated the district was seeking a waiver to average 33 students per class in grades four to eight. The district is actually seeking a waiver to average as many as 33 students.