In order to reduce class size, Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech is proposing to hire 135 more staff members, purchase more teacher equipment and possibly put into place more portable trailers — all to the tune of $8.7 million — just days before the School Board is slated to approve the fiscal year 2004 budget.
Normally, such a suggestion would be dismissed as being too late in the game or a political ploy to fire up the community over potential cuts. However, this time around, the proposal to add staff is being applauded, if cautiously, by the board and schools staff. In fact, earlier this month School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully) requested Domenech make suggestions as to how the school system could reduce class size this budget year.
"It was a victory for us," Judy Johnson, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said Monday. "When we actually see it in place, we will sign off on it."
The federation, along with other school-system employee groups, PTAs and community organizations have been advocating for lower class sizes this budget season.
The superintendent plans to pay for the class-reduction plan by holding off on realigning contributions to the school system's two retirement funds; using money set aside to meet additional federal regulations governing the transporting of Head Start students (the county is negotiating for a waiver); and to cut the accounts for equipment replacement and major maintenance.
"No one is complaining about average class size. People are complaining about large classes, classes over 30," Domenech said last Thursday, May 15, when he made the proposal at a budget work session.
"What the proposal attempts to address is not to reduce class size by a half student [the average increase last year] … I'm proposing a staffing formula change.
"Because we are effectively reducing class size at every level, we can expect a systemwide three-quarters of a student reduction," he said.
As of January, the school system had 44 elementary-school classes, in grades four through six, with more than 30 students, slightly down from the 46 classes in October.
UNDER THE PROPOSAL, at the elementary-school level students with special needs would be counted as a full student instead of half a student as they are now because typically the students do not attend class for a full day. In doing so, Domenech says schools will need to hire 92 additional teachers. The staffing change also means two elementary schools without assistant principals would now qualify for the position, while another school would require a second assistant. In addition, schools would need more clerical and custodial staff because of staffing formulas.
Domenech also cautioned the smaller class sizes means an increased need for more classroom space, which equates to the return of portable classrooms.
To reduce class size at the middle-school level, the plan calls for every school to receive an additional staff member. For some schools, that will actually mean no change, while others will lose some ground. Under the block-scheduling method, which extends class periods every other day for more in-depth learning, used by nine of the 22 middle schools, an additional .5 to 1.5 position is provided. The class-size reduction plan will make it a uniform one position for all the schools regardless of whether they use block scheduling or not.
The plan also reinstates the 28-student cap on Standards of Learning (SOL) courses at the high-school level that was eliminated during last year's $48 million in budget cuts. This year, the school system only had a $3.2 million gap to bridge in the $1.6 billion proposed budget.
"Principals felt what really helped them was when we had a cap on SOL classes and we are returning to that," Domenech said.
"Anytime you can reduce class size anywhere, that is a good thing," Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said Monday. "I think they are trying to do that to the extent they can, but it's not an across the board fix.
"Whenever you can reduce class size, that's a positive,” Allen said. “That's the one absolute in research, that reduced class size improves academics."
"I'm glad to see the board, unlike last year, has put this as a top priority," said Rita Thompson (At large).
Some, however, questioned how the school system would continue to fund the plan since some of the measures raided for this year are one-time expenses. There were also concerns that, at least at the elementary-school level, the plan seemed a little disproportional.
"Why at the elementary-school level do we need to add clerical and custodial staff?" said Mychele Brickner (At large). "All of this is being done [adding 107 staff positions] because we have 46 classes over 30 students? I have concerns you're compounding a problem for the board."
Domenech explained the additional clerical and custodial are simply a result of a staffing formula and that overall, the plan allows for flexibility instead of just adding enough teachers to cover the current number of overcrowded classes.
Even the Fairfax County Council of PTAs expressed concern over how well this plan will work.
"The council is pleased they have taken this on as a priority. We can't raise class size anymore," Diane Brody, president of the council, said Monday. "As far as the rest, it sounds too good to be true. You can't do these things without hurting something. We'll have to wait to see the impact."
School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), the finance and budget chair, said she planned to incorporate the proposal into her motion to approve the FY 2004 budget at Thursday's meeting.