10 Aug Rules Bent for Financially Strapped Schools (GA)

August 10, 2010

By: Nancy Badertscher
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Carl Sanders was governor the last time Georgia public school students were in classes less than 180 days a year.

But this year, for the first time since the mid-1960s, school systems across Georgia are compressing the school year into fewer days to save money. Systems just have to make sur e they still offer the equivalent 59,400 instructional minutes.

The state is bending several long-standing rules this year to give some breathing room to school districts that have been slashing budgets and dipping into, if not depleting, their rainy day funds to offset lost revenue due to the economic downturn.

"We have been very open to helping school systems have flexibility wherever they need it to get through the tough budget times," said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

School systems also are being allowed to assign more students to each classroom — which means fewer teachers, possibly 3,000 less in the metro Atlanta region and 8,000 statewide, and plenty of anxiety. The districts have been given flexibility to average their class sizes, so it could be weeks until it’s clear how big some classes may be.

In addition, the state Board of Education has been issuing waivers so systems could shorten the employment contracts of teachers and bus drivers to coincide with their condensed school years and have more leeway on spending money they receive from the state.

"I just don’t know what we’re doing to our kids long term," said Katha Stuart, a mother of two Fulton County Schools students.

Stuart said, with fewer special education teachers, she is particularly concerned about the inclusion classes, where special education students and regular students learn together.

"Of course, we want [the special education students] to have all the help they need," she said. "But what happens to the other kids?"

In 2009, the General Assembly c hanged state law so local districts no longer had to have a 180-day calendar. Cash-strapped systems saw opportunities for savings, including Peach County, near Macon, which immediately went to a four-day school week.

Others waited for this school year to make a change, including Fulton County, which is adding 10 minutes to each school day to cut three days off the school year calendar. That’s expected to save Fulton $1.1 million, including $250,000 in fuel, transportation maintenance and utility costs.

Systems are expecting to save much more — into the millions of dollars — from a waiver of class size requirements and from a law change approved this year by the General Assembly, allowing class size averaging across a school district. For example, in sixth-grade math, the maximum class size is 28 students. With the option to use class size averaging, a system can have a math class of 14 and a math class of 42.

There is uncertainty — and skepticism — particularly about how the systemwide averaging will play out in both the short and long term.

"We won’t really know how it will shake out until the students are back in school, in classrooms, and the actual numbers present themselves," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Class size waivers are not new. Of the state’s 180 school districts, 118 asked for permission for the last school year to bump up the number of students they have per classroom by one or two, Cardoza said. But in May of this year, the state Board of Education voted to effectively leave it to locals to determine class size for this school year only, he said.

Connie Jackson, a longtime special education teacher, said Cobb County teachers are w orried that, with systemwide averaging, there’s a potential for class sizes — and discipline problems — to dramatically increase in their district.

"Class averaging allows for flexibility that can be great or can be abused," said Jackson, who was just elected president of the Cobb County Association of Educators.

Jeff Hubbard, recent past president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said there could be major academic repercussions to bigger class sizes, including more students falling through the cracks, lower test scores, lower achievement rates and lower graduation rates.

"The politicos thought it was a necessary option due to the budget," Hubbard said.

The problem, he said, is "once something changes like this, it’s damn near impossible to change it back. And given the continued downturn in revenue collections, if it isn’t in place for at least another two to three years, I’d be extremely surprised."

Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, expects to save $31.2 million by adding an average of one student per classroom. The county is not tinkering with special needs classes, said Jorge Quintana, the district’s director of media relations.

The school systems in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and Marietta and Decatur already were exempt from state class size requirements because of their status as charter or IE2 systems, Cardoza said.

Studies over the past 30 years, including one from Tennessee, tout the benefits of lower class sizes, largely because teachers who have fewer students are able to give each student more individual attention, something considered especially important in the lower grades.<br /& gt;

Statewide, some school systems are obtaining hardship waivers, exempting them from a requirement that 65 percent of the state money that flows to them go to direct classroom instruction.

Stuart, the Fulton County mother, said she can understand why teacher morale is difficult to maintain.

"There’s just so much upheaval," she said, noting that some teachers found out only last week that they’re being moved to other schools for the new school year. "It’s all the more critical that parents offer as much support as they can."

Jill Herring, a parent volunteer at Cobb County’s East Side Elementary, said the stress that teachers are feeling is palpable.

"Now, more than ever, it really makes a difference to teachers, knowing that parents are there to help," said Herring, who is using VolunteerSpot.com, a website for organizing volunteers, to coordinate 120 volunteers for a book sale that helps raise more than $20,000 each year for needed supplies for the school in Marietta.

Cobb’s Jackson is confident that teachers will adapt to all the changes.

"Yes, there is tremendous pressure on us this year, but as a teacher, you love every year," she said. "I don’t think this year will be any different once you get past the fear and the worry."

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