North Allegheny addresses elementary school class sizes

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North Allegheny school directors who were elected on the platform of elementary class size made good on a campaign promise. They have proposed a method to determine the number of sections of each elementary grade.

The policy, which directors will consider May 21, was criticized by other board members, who contend that it restricts the ability of the administration to manage. They also warned that it could lead to tax increases.

The maximum class sizes would be 24 for grades K-2, 27 for grade 3 and 29 for grades 4 and 5. The administration on Aug. 1 would divide the total number of children in each grade by the maximum amount to determine the number of sections. Sections would not have to be added if enrollment increases after Aug. 1.

Current class size maximums are 25 in grades K-2 and 30 in grades 3-5, but those guidelines were exceeded in some classes in 2012-13, prompting complaints by parents.

“We are in a position ... where this board can put a policy in place that responds to those requests from the community,” said Tara Fisher, board vice president.

The policy also would direct administrators to keep class sizes equitable in every school. Another section of a class would have to be added if class sizes at one school are higher than the others, even if they fall within the guidelines. That applies if the school has space.

Assistant superintendent Robert Scherer said those numbers would require the addition of four or five teachers for 2014-15 at a cost of $460,000 to $495,000.

Mrs. Fisher, Kevin Mahler and Scott Russell, who were elected in November, joined board President Chris Jacobs in advocating for the policy. The three were elected in part because of the class-size issue.

“This is the most important thing that we can spend money on. I have no problem making that a priority,” said Mr. Mahler.

Both Mr. Mahler and Mr. Russell said they would rather spend money on teachers than technology.

“I think this is one of the best things we can do for the students,” said Mrs. Fisher, adding that students spend half of their “educational experience” at the elementary level. “The foundation is reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Directors Libby Blackburn, Joseph Greenberg and Maureen Grosheider said that, although they also favor small class sizes, such a specific policy is not the way to do things and does not give the administration any flexibility.

“There’s a reason why the people sitting around these tables here have Ph.D s. They’re smart people,” said Mr. Greenberg. “To dictate to them how we are going to do this ... isn’t appropriate.”

He added that the board already has the power to control class size through the budget.

“I believe that we all want to have reasonably low class sizes if we can do it,” said Mrs. Grosheider, “but the job of the school board is to balance what is essential and good for kids against the ability of our taxpayers to pay. You have to be very careful about creating a policy that has the potential to add 10 or 12 new teachers each year.”

Also, she said the budget is approved in May or June, and the teachers would not be added until August.

“If we want to put forward a policy on class sizes, then I think it needs to be far more general” and it needs to cover all grade levels, Mrs. Grosheider said.

“When a youngster goes to sixth grade, his class size is just as important as the youngsters in K through 5.”

Mrs. Fisher said the policy is a “first step,” and the board also needs to look at secondary class sizes.

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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