Union calls for action on school crowding

September 13, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

After passing their latest district spending plan, Issaquah school officials quickly stated that despite funding cuts and the overall economic downturn, local class sizes had remained the same.

“We were able to retain our class sizes from the prior year’s budget cycle,” said Jake Kuper, Issaquah School District chief of finance and operations.

That may be true, according to Phyllis Runyon, president of the Issaquah Education Association, the local teachers union.

But Runyon also said teachers still are struggling with oversized classes throughout the district. She added there are at least a few overloaded classes in every building and also talked about class size problems at specific schools and in specific grade levels.

For example, there are about 36 science and language arts-social studies classes overloaded at Beaver Middle Lake Middle School, Runyon said. She also talked about crowded conditions in secondary music classes.

Orchestra classes should have about 36 children each, she said. Instead, she said some classes have between 40 and 56 students. That many students in one room put a real strain on teachers, she continued.

“The electives are really taking the brunt of this,” Runyon said.

Runyon said district officials have agreed to send help to “hotspots” around the district.

“Hopefully, we’ll hear that we’ll have extra orchestra teachers,” she said.

According to Kuper, the help being sent consists of paraeducators or teachers when they are available. He did not address any specific problems.

There are always a few classes out of whack, Kuper said, adding that, “Students don’t come in perfect ratios.”

According to Sara Niegowski, district director of communications, the schools have about the usual number of classes at overload.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, Runyon asked the administration to reinstate the benefits that teachers, under certain circumstances, can collect in case of crowded classes. Board members made no comment and took no action on Runyon’s request.

Runyon later explained that by contract, potential overload benefits for teachers consist of educational assistance or added pay. She also said the current teachers contract has “horrible” language allowing the district to waive overload benefits under certain circumstances, including the loss of state funds and in case of teacher layoffs.

According to Kuper, Issaquah schools have lost a total of about $16 million in state dollars over the last three years. Although they eventually all were called back, the district began its budget process by planning for a worst-case scenario and sliced 36 teacher positions.

The district does have student-teacher ratios it tries to maintain. For kindergarten through second grade, there should be 21 students for every one teacher. For grades three to five, the numbers are 25 to 1, and for grades six through eight, 25.5 to 1. The ratios are all plus or minus three students, Kuper said. Once class sizes exceed those numbers, the overload clause in the teachers’ contract could kick in.

For secondary students, Kuper said setting class ratios becomes much more difficult. Students have more electives and more choice in their schedules.

“We always want lower,” Niegowski said in regard to class sizes. But she added the district administration is proud it was able to maintain class sizes, contending many districts raised student to teacher ratios as a money-saving measure.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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