Money and its impact on class size

(A post I wrote to the NewtonParents listserve on 9-2-09, in response to a question about how to deal with growing class size)

The issue of class size is entirely one tied to money.

Here is the roller coaster: class size is going up, because teacher numbers are going down, because compensation is going up, while the rate of revenue increase is going down. Last year the school department cut 80 positions, and 80 more would have been cut for this coming year had NPS not budgeted for a freeze in COLA. The NTA has still not ratified this contract, so who knows what our final budget numbers will be.

Some options to deal with the roller coaster include: bringing more money into the system (property tax increases, hotel and restaurant tax increases, new growth, PILOTs, raising fees, taxing telecommunication company assets, etc.), finding cost savings and efficiencies, and shifting money from the municipal budget.  

Small revenue growth has been realized in a few of these areas and will impact the next budget. But I believe the reality is that no significant new revenue will come soon that will address the diverging curves of revenue growth and NPS compensation growth. Simply, this means that teacher numbers, or teacher compensation growth, get cut. We must choose. I’ll say it again – we must choose.

Does NPS spend too much on SPED? Do we have too many highly paid administrators? How does METCO impact our budget? These and other questions certainly require our consideration. But, sound evaluation takes time, and in the meantime we will be looking at large staffing cuts, and growing class sizes, for next year.

Immediately, we can mitigate the harm of growing class sizes by keeping the lowest student: teacher ratios in grades K, 1, and 2. These are the grades in which class size measurably impacts educational outcomes. In higher grade levels, we may viscerally react against higher class sizes, but the impacts on student performance are much less significant. The variation in student performance and educational outcomes are much more impacted by teacher quality than by class size.

In the longer term, we can negotiate (let’s assume the outcome and not fuss over how difficult the process may be) a lower rate of compensation growth for our teachers (which, when COLA, step increases, longevity increases, and educational increases are factored in, has averaged around 7% annually). The trick is to slow growth rate while keeping Newton a very attractive option to top quality teachers. I propose doing this by increasing the non-monetary features of their work, such as providing career path options including “master teacher” roles, making higher quality professional development available, being given the opportunity and encouragement to innovate, organizing more focused collaboration time with colleagues, and operating under the support and guidance from strong supervisors including principals.

And finally, we’ll have to factor in the revenue and efficiency impacts noted above, as we gradually bring them online.

Class size is about money and how we allocate it. Period.

(A respondent to the post suggested that class size is more complicated, and must consider population increases and space constraints in a given school). My followup:

Sue is absolutely correct – this issue is complicated with subtleties and her points are well taken. But for our school system as a whole, this remains a money problem and we must address this above all else. Adding teachers to a school with a population bubble is a specific, local solution and may indeed be limited by the space constraints of one school. The big picture however, is that our student:teacher ratio is climbing because we are cutting teaching and support professionals completely out of the system, and this is driven solely by budget constraints. We let 80 FTE (full time employees) go from Newton Public Schools last year. We did this not because we couldn’t cram another modular in here and there across the system to fit them in, we did it because we didn’t have the money to pay them.

Included in this body count were many of our school social workers, the “pressure relief valves” that each principal and classroom teacher needs to allow them to be most effective at their administrative and academic work. We didn’t let them go because we did not have enough office space to house them. Instead we decided that we had to remove their salaries from the school budget. This decision increases the stress levels in all classrooms and administration offices. Just ask those who remain.

Flexible staffing via teams, redistricting new students, increasing technology in the classroom, creating teacher support with students from area colleges, and gradually introducing new sources of funding into the system, are all blow-softeners that will ease some impacts of growing our student:teacher ratio. These and other ideas should be evaluated regardless of the budget allocation and teacher contract features we see in 2010.

Expect more staff cuts next year. Why? It is all about the money. The fundamental problem our school system faces is an unsustainable budget structure (CAG 101). Figuring out how to take care of our teachers while addressing our unsustainable budget issue is our most important work right now. This is where our attention must be focused to best fulfill our mission of giving our students the best education possible.