Small elementary class sizes come at a premium — one that the Board of Education would like to keep paying, even in the face of declining enrollment.

That’s why the board is considering reducing staff at East Ridge Middle School, where the enrollment drop-off is comparably steeper — and longer — than it is at the district’s six middle schools.

“I think it’s interesting to note that we have two fewer [elementary] students, but because of our class size practices, we’ve acquired three more staff than what we budgeted for,” said Chairwoman Fran Walton at the board’s Nov. 13 meeting.

The board has no plans to alter its class size practices at the elementary level, she added, which will result in the continued late hiring of additional teachers.

“That, in a way, goes to the strength of the support we offer at the elementary schools,” Walton said. “We like small class sizes. It’s important to this community.”

For the 2017-18 school year, the district hired three elementary teachers to keep class sizes at Veterans Park and Barlow Mountain from exceeding the maximum number of students in third and fifth grade classrooms.

It was the second year in a row the district had to hire three extra elementary teachers, according to Director of Personnel Karen Dewing, who presented the report on class sizes to the board.

“It’s a function of six elementary schools, each with six grades,” Dewing said. “So one student, depending on what grade level they’re in, and our class-size practices — whether the max is 21 or 25 — can make a significant difference.”

Budgeting for contingency

Dewing recommended that the board consider budgeting for contingency staff — in case extra teachers are needed to once again keep elementary class sizes within the district guidelines.

Predicting how many extra students to account for at the six elementary schools can be vexing for the district, she acknowledged, especially with elementary enrollment expected to increase sooner — at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year — than originally projected (see story on page 1A).

Adding to the confusion is how enrollment numbers can fluctuate from school to school.

For example, the district budgeted for a third kindergarten class at Barlow Mountain this year but ended up with only two classes after five registered students opted not to attend class.

“In each case, the decision was to keep the child in more of a preschool setting or at home for another year based on age and readiness,” Superintendent Karen Baldwin explained to the board.

“So that was surprising to us … that we would budget for a third class and not need it,” she said. “Those were significant numbers — to be off by five like that, so that was something that we couldn’t have predicted.”

Middle schools

Budgeting for contingency staff will create an additional cost in teacher salaries for the district, one that could be offset by dropping a team of seventh grade teachers at East Ridge.

The middle school eliminated a team of sixth grade teachers for the current 2017-18 school year to save costs — and to deal with a continued decline in enrollment at the school. Board members highlighted the district’s commitment to smaller class sizes as part of what makes the town attractive to parents.

“I look at those class sizes, and it’s admirable,” said board member Doug Silver. “Honestly, as we’ve had budget challenges over the last couple of years, it was something I wanted to point out.”