SIERRA VISTA — Teachers, support staff and parents packed the Sierra Vista Unified School District governing board meeting Tuesday evening to standing room only, with a number of people overflowing into the hallway.
The larger-than-usual crowd was there in response to a comment made at a Feb. 27 budget work session by SVUSD Superintendent Kelly Glass regarding class sizes and possible changes to the district’s current staffing model to help head off a $1 million budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.
It was the following comment, which was quoted in the March 1 Herald/Review, that caused the debate: “Research indicates that class size does not affect student achievement,” Glass said. “It’s the quality of teacher …”
At the budget session, Glass spoke about different options she and her administrative team are considering to prevent a budget deficit of more than $1 million in 2020. Such measures as creating multi-age classrooms in schools where class sizes are small and shifting teachers to schools with higher student populations were mentioned as possible cost-saving solutions. If staffing cuts should happen, Glass said the district will attempt to make them through attrition. She also said it takes 28 students to a classroom in order to cover a teacher’s salary. Several elementary school classrooms throughout the district are currently far lower than what the administrative team wants, a situation Glass and administrators are watching, with the possibility of making future adjustments. The options were presented by Glass at the work session to give board members background about the district’s need to cut back on spending. No decisions were made, as the presentation was intended as an informational tool for the board’s benefit.
Call to the public
Justin Westbrook, the first of about 10 members of the public to speak, addressed the board as a concerned parent with three children enrolled in public schools.
He challenged the superintendent’s class size comment, calling it “a false or misleading claim.”
“Class size is important,” he said. “The fact that we even measure student-to-teacher ratios (indicates) that those ratios are significant ... I have yet to meet an educator who will claim that she will be more effective with more students in her classroom.”
Along with citing the educational benefits of smaller classes, Westbrook also pointed to the economic benefit small class sizes hold for communities.
“Real estate listings display student-teacher ratios for nearby schools, and people make decisions on whether to live in our community or in distant Vail due to the perceived higher school quality there,” he said.
In his concluding remarks, Westbrook requested the governing board consider asking the superintendent to “clarify or cite which research she is referencing when providing her professional assessment to the board, community and newspaper.”
Anya Mesch, a Buena High School graduate and former SVUSD first- and second-grade teacher, also questioned Glass’ comment.
“I would like to know what research is being used to support this claim … ,” she said. “As a former young teacher in this district, I’m concerned the district is putting its pocketbook before its students.”
Mesch said the district is already having problems retaining quality teachers and that she believes creating larger class sizes, coupled with combining grades, will make recruiting and retaining teachers even more challenging.
“I urge you to look at what is best for our teachers, support staff and, so importantly, our students, and realize that money isn’t the bottom line, but educating our future is and should be,” she said.
Former SVUSD board member Lori Silk questioned why the district called a 1:30 p.m. special meeting, followed by a budget work session on a Wednesday (Feb. 27 special meeting) where budget concerns were discussed.
“Holding it at that time makes it impossible for most parents, their employees and stakeholders to attend,” she said. “It makes one wonder, ‘Why?’ ”
Silk said when there are issues or concerns, the district should hold discussions during times when the community can come together and be a part of the discussion.
During the work session, board member Hollie Sheriff also questioned why the district called the meeting, and was advised by Glass of two time-sensitive agenda items that needed board approval sooner rather than later. Glass explained she is not in the habit of calling special meetings, but this one was warranted because of those two agenda items.
Silk also touched on the budget issues the district is facing and stated that the major funding problems in schools “lie with the state government.” She acknowledged financial discrepancies from past years that the new administration is working to resolve.
“That said, the students should not be paying for this, nor the teachers or the staff,” she said. “Public schools were born so communities could take care of the education of our most important asset, our children.”
Another parent, Meg Hall, has a daughter enrolled at Buena and a son at Palominas School. She spoke of concerns about some class sizes at Buena, particularly an advanced-placement class of 28 students that her daughter is taking. She also expressed a concern about what she perceives as a large number of teachers leaving the district.
“Two of the teachers that my daughter wanted next year are no longer there,” she said.
Hall also was unhappy about the district’s decision to hold the Feb. 27 special meeting at a time that made it difficult for the community to attend.
School board responds
As part of the board meeting’s concluding remarks, members addressed the the public’s concerns from the call to the public.
“We know smaller class size is better,” Sheriff said. “But it’s just not a budget reality here in Arizona. While I would love to see class sizes of 16 or 18, it’s just not a possibility in this state.”
Small classes are very important to the parents in this community, board member Connie Johnson said. She said there are districts in other parts of the state with 30 children in kindergarten classes.
Glass also weighed-in, saying that the district will not be changing its class size policy, but is actually looking at making sure there is an equitable distribution of children across the district.
“I think part of the issue here is that the whole conversation was not reported (by the Herald/Review), just one piece of that conversation was reported,” she said. “We were talking about the benefit (of quality teachers) … the quality of our staff is most critical to the improvement of our student learning.”
Glass also said that while class size is important, it is a secondary issue, according to research.
When asked by board member Yolanda Boutte about the district’s class size policy, Glass provided the following numbers: “Twenty-two students in kindergarten; 23 in first grade; 24 in grades two and three; 26 in grade four and 28 in grades five through 12. There’s also a limit for multi-age classrooms as well as special-education classroom suggestions for size.”
Board President Barbara Williams said the school district experienced an anomaly at the beginning of the school year because of “a deluge of last-minute enrollments in the kindergarten program when another institution announced it would be charging for kindergarten.”
She also said Vail school district recently announced it will charge for full-day kindergarten next year.
“It’s a tender subject because we are often compared to the Vail District, often to our detriment,” she added.
Johnson requested a work session to address class size.
“We need to know what we are going to be doing before the information gets out there so we can answer questions, as a board member,” she said.
In her comments, Joy Mims thanked the attendees for coming to the meeting.
“It is good to have an audience so you know that we are working in the open and that our basic premise for being here is because we care about the school district, we care about the students and the the teachers and the admin and support staff that are doing the work for our children,” she said.
Sheriff noted there is a lot of positive work going on in the district.
“I hope to continue building trust with administration, with staff, with community, with fellow board members,” she said. “I believe everyone’s intentions in this room are good … we all want the same thing … we’re all here for the students and to make our district the best it can be for our kids and our community.”