Board members were unsure of how to fix the problem, citing budget constraints.
Morris, a father of four, has been researching class sizes in the district’s schools for months, and distributed a 33-page summary of his findings to board members Wednesday.
Class sizes and the number of teachers allotted to students at each school is a complicated puzzle of course offerings, enrollment estimates and state and local funding, board members said, and a solution is nowhere in sight.
“This is a hodge-podge of variables, and there is no, quick, easy solution,” said board member David Morgan.
Morris said he had done exhaustive work analyzing trends and patterns within the class sizes across the county.
Some schools enjoy an abundance of reasonably sized classes, while others have to endure larger class sizes, he found.
As a parent, Morris argued that he thinks parents should expect their children to have similar class sizes no matter what school they attend.
“It’s not consistent across schools … this does not look reasonable to me,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
Morris wants the inequities to be balanced out by next year, he told board members, who said they were aware of the problem, but unsure how to fix it with their current budget.
Numbers vary in county
As board members flipped through Morris’s findings, filled with charts, graphs and figures, board member David Banks asked, “Would you explain what these numbers really mean to us?”
Morris has found that class sizes varied widely at every school in the county in elementary, middle and high schools, and were not correlated with Title 1 status or location within the district, he said.
He found that as of Nov. 1, students at Kell High School spent 47 percent of their day in oversized classes, while students at Walton spent 14 percent of their day in oversized classes, and South Cobb High School students spent 61 percent of their day in oversized classrooms.
Students at Griffin Middle School spent 81 percent of their day in oversized classrooms. It was 55 percent for students at East Cobb Middle School and 32 percent for Smitha students, according to his charts.
To get another teacher for a gifted class at Campbell High School, the school needs to identify 18 gifted students, at Allatoona it is 46, at Walton it’s 27 and at Hillgrove it’s 71, Morris found.
Morris was confused, he said, as to how the numbers could be so varied. He wanted answers and solutions, but board members said their hands were tied by budget constraints and a number of enrollment factors.
“They have a bunch of excuses as to why things are different,” he said. “I don’t think they understand it.”
Despite his efforts to alert the district and the board of the class size inequity, Morris doesn’t think his message is getting through.
“They’re running a billion-dollar industry by the seat of their pants,” he said. “My biggest concern is they will move too slowly and won’t be able to get anything done before next year.”
Scamihorn admitted the problem would most likely take a few years to solve. He said it hopes it will take the district a maximum of three years to figure it out.
District formula and methods
The state has placed a limit on the maximum number of students for each grade and subject. For high school English, math, social studies, science and foreign language, the state sets a max of 32 students per classroom. For middle schools, the maximum is 28 students, for grades 4-5, it is 28 students, grades 1-3 are set at 21 students, and kindergarten is 18 students, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
If the district wants to keep its funding for full-time students, called FTE funding, it must apply for a waiver from the state if it expects it will fill classes with more than the maximum allotted students, said Board Chair Randy Scamihorn.
If the district doesn’t get the waiver approved, then it would be forced to pay for each student over the maximum allotment out of pocket, he said. Last year, the district applied for a waiver that would allow it to fill classrooms with up to five students over the maximum, and this year, they asked to fill classes with up to eight students over the maximum, Scamihorn said.
Morris said there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for how many students packed classrooms across the district each day.
A number of factors are considered when determining teacher allotment and class sizes, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the board. Special education classes, the size of classrooms, Early Intervention Program students, ESL classes, foreign language courses, AP classes and electives all came into play when determining class sizes, and the district is constantly shifting teachers around and monitoring class sizes, Hinojosa said.
The district has already cut down on the number of elective courses offered at schools to save money, Hinojosa said.
He admitted that the system “is not perfect,” but ultimately, the cost-saving austerity cuts the district has been forced to make has pushed classes above the state maximum levels.
Cheryl Hungerford, the deputy superintendent of leadership and learning for the district, explained to the board the county determines class sizes and allotments through a formula, and works with the number of teachers, students and classes available at each school to determine classroom sizes and the number of teachers at each school.
“I’m going to tell you, I too am concerned about class sizes. As we begin in the budget process for next year, we are looking at class sizes,” and how they will be impacted by the district’s anticipated $80 million budget shortfall in 2014, she said.
Hungerford added that the district has cut 1,300 teachers since 2010, and grown by 23,000 students, which has forced them to increase their class sizes past the state maximums. Board members were unsure of what to make of the numbers and asked the superintendent for a comprehensive chart that would break down the district’s class sizes, total number of students, courses offered and all other variables at play in classroom sizes.
Board tied by deficit
Board member Kathleen Angelucci said she was concerned by how the numbers were so unbalanced.
“If you look at the district as a whole, we are under capacity,” she said.
And yet, some classes are still bursting with students.
“It seems like it is not equal across the board,” she said.
Board member David Banks agreed.
“We’ve got too many schools we can’t afford. Some of those schools have to close,” he said. “The problem is, which ones?”
Banks said the board needed to come up with a plan to fix the inequities and the budget, but wasn’t hopeful it would happen by next year.
“What are we going to do to stop it?” Banks asked of the board.
Parents in the room were shocked by Morris’s findings. Michelle Tisdale, who has a fourth-grader and seventh-grader in the school system, said “it’s so helpful just to have the information. Class size is a concern across the board.”
Her daughter, a fourth-grader at Mountain View Elementary, is in a class of 31 students, she said, and the size of her class makes it difficult for her teacher to provide her with personal attention.
“She could thrive under personal attention, but she is not given that opportunity in a class of 31 (students),” Tisdale said.
Tisdale hoped the board would be able to reconcile the disparities across the county, although Banks wasn’t sure there was a quick fix to the problem.
“It’s a serious problem; the concern I have is how is it affecting our scores. Are we at the pinnacle of declining?” he asked.
Connie Jackson, the president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, a teacher advocacy group, said she was disturbed by the inequity in class sizes and the allotment process.
While there will always be differences in schools and grades across the county, Jackson said, “I think it is the responsibility of the board to fix this.”