Sometimes, things just don’t get done.
That was the case at the Board of Education meeting Monday night, when board members elected not to vote on an additional teacher or paraprofessional for third and fourth grade classrooms at Veterans Park and Scotland, respectively, that are at the district’s recommended class size maximum of 26 students.
“Have we accomplished anything? No change — nothing?” one parent asked the board members before leaving the room with dozens of other agitated parents — 12 of whom spoke earlier in the meeting.
Secretary Amy Shinohara moved the discussion to a vote on lowering the district’s class size policy after the hour and a half debate, but received support from only two other board members, failing to get the majority vote needed to push her motion forward as an action item.
“We need to finish this tonight,” she urged the room.
Board member Chris Murray was against the decision to vote on changing the policy on class size because he felt it would create an “ugly precedent” that would allow the board to create rules on an “indefensible” ad hoc basis.
He argued that the class size parameters had been established last year and the process of reassessing those parameters shouldn’t be done under duress or based on specific circumstances.
“We’ve already voted on maximum class size, so we have to go another route on this issue,” he said. “We can’t vote on class size just to accommodate these rooms.”
Board member John Palermo agreed, saying that lowering classes was “dangerous to do on the fly.”
“It’s hard to fix one or two rooms,” he said. “Then it becomes ‘what are you going to do for my kid?’ every meeting we have.”
Mr. Murray proposed a compromise where the board would not take action on the class-size debate, but would address the specific problems at Veterans Park and Scotland by voting to have a paraprofessional in each of the large classes, rather than maintaining the current system where the paraprofessional splits time between each of the classes.
However, his suggestion was met with a bevy of financial concerns and retorts that the district’s over enrollment this year (see story in this week’s Press) justified the board’s readdressing the issue of lowering class size.
“Given the district priorities, we should have addressed this back in the spring,” said board member Michael Raduazzo. “We did drop the proverbial ball during the budgeting process — we had the opportunity to do it then. We didn’t do our due dilligence as a governing body.”
Two paraprofessionals — one at each school, split between two classes — cost the district around $80,000 total. The cost of two more would inflate that number to around $160,000 — approximately the same cost of two permanent teachers.
“We are talking about $80,000 out of an $83-million budget,” said board member Karen Sulzinsky. “It’s about the same amount of money, but not the same type of education for these kids. That’s what we’re talking about here.”
Mr. Murray said he didn’t want to dismiss parents’ personal stake in their kids’ education, especially ones directly facing this crisis, but felt that the board has a broader responsibility to the town and the district.
“Our role is not to advocate for certain groups or, in this case, specific classes,” he said after the meeting. “If we’re going to look at class size, then we need to do it based on broader evaluations — in a more comprehensive way.”
Chairman Austin Drukker agreed with this point on Monday night, saying the board set the classroom size last year and discussed lowering the number to 25, but only if “budget parameters allow.”
Of the dozen speakers Monday, all favored either breaking up the affected classes by adding a third teacher to the respective grade or hiring two additional paraprofessionals — one in each school — to eliminate the splitting of time between classes.
Every speaker — citing various studies and articles — mentioned that the affected classrooms each had 26 students, which created a difficult learning environment and put the children at a disadvantage. They wanted smaller class sizes.
“When I look at the same grade at other schools, I see an advantage for some kids in this district and a disadvantage for others,” said a Veterans Park parent. “This is not a level playing field and I am terrified what the results will be if we keep it this way.”
Others didn’t plea with emotion, rather asked to the board to view the issue from a cold, business-centric viewpoint.
“There are three customers in this transaction and that’s the teachers, the students and the parents; splitting the class or adding an extra paraprofessional will benefit all three parties,” said a Scotland parent. “Some people will leave this district and some may never come at all based on your decision tonight.”
The largest contingency of parents, speakers and non-speakers alike, maintained board members had a responsibility to these classes based on goals they set last year.
“You agreed that class size, in particular in the third grade, was a top priority last year — it doesn’t seem like it is,” said a Veterans Park parent.
According to Section 1-e of Ridgefield Public Schools 2013-2014 district priorities that were approved 7-0 on Nov. 26, 2012, “If budget parameters allow, reduce Grade 3 ‘desired maximum class size’ from 25 to 24 students and ‘maximum class size’ from 26 to 25 students.”
At a meeting Nov. 13, Ms. Shinohara asked if class size maximums for grades three through five could be reduced without affecting staffing. Ms. Sulzinsky proposed that the issue be included as a priority if there were no impact on the budget.
According to the 2012-2013 class size report, the average class size throughout the district was 19.82 students — 2,201 students spread out in 111 classes.
There were several classes last year, including a pair of fifth grade classes at Barlow Mountain Elementary School, that averaged 25 students, at the district’s desired class size, but never received additional assistance.
“I think we have to start looking at the bigger picture here,” Mr. Murray said Tuesday. “We have an unprecedented amount of kids that are over our projected enrollment and they are going to strain the budget, which leaves us with only one question, how do we address this going forward this year?”