East Valley school districts say one of the top impacts of the economic downturn has been a rise in class sizes.
The districts gathered Monday night as part of the East Valley School Board Consortium. The group — which includes districts in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, Queen Creek and San Tan Valley — get together whenever there is a fifth Monday in a month to share ideas and get updates on issues.
Following a presentation on school financing, Kyrene Elementary School District’s Jeff Peters asked the board members and administrators to share the strategies they’ve used to deal with budget cuts in the last few years.
The first question — about how student learning has been impacted by the cuts — showed a common theme. To reduce their budgets, districts increased class sizes, which meant teacher cuts or positions not filled.
Mesa Unified School District did that two years ago when it increased class sizes, said governing board president Steve Peterson.
“We either had to cut teachers’ salaries or increase class size. Those were the only two options we had a few years ago. We chose to increase class size, which is pretty consistent with what everyone else did,” he told the Tribune following the meeting.
The double whammy many districts — including Mesa — saw was that it also reduced support staff. So not only did teachers have more students, they didn’t have an aide to give them a hand, he said.
“It hasn’t always been supplemented with additional teacher aides. That leaves a teacher with more students to manage,” he said. “It also means less attention of the teacher working with kids.”
Peterson said he doesn’t see a change in the student-to-teacher ratio anytime soon with the current funding.
“Probably the thing we’re working to do is give more assistance with technology,” he said. “Without more funding, there’s little we can do to decrease those class sizes.”
The last question asked school leaders to discuss how they’ve developed their budgets “during uncertain times for education funding.”
Many said they are reaching out to legislators and parents to help them understand the impact of the cuts.
Gilbert noted the upcoming Nov. 6 election, where it is asking voters to continue a budget override that’s already in place.
Districts receive funding from the state based on enrollment. More money can come in the form of an override. Those are in place for seven years when voters agree to tax themselves to provide districts with additional funds.
Many districts in the state now count on overrides, Chuck Essigs told the group earlier in the meeting. Essigs is the director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. He said that the state has not funded around a billion dollars in capital funding alone over the last five years. With the earlier cuts made to limit districts’ bonding capacity — a way for them to ask voters to fund buildings and maintenance — districts must use funds from their operations budgets to pay for roofs, plumbing and air-conditioning units, as well as pay teacher salaries and benefits.
“Arizona has slipped so much that overrides are being used to fund basic operations,” he said.
So many East Valley districts are putting their hopes on that November ballot. Besides Gilbert, the Higley, Queen Creek, and Chandler unified districts and Tempe Union High School District have maintenance and operations override renewals on the ballot. And Mesa Unified School District is asking voters to approve a $230 million bond question, which includes funding for technology purchases and upgrades and building maintenance.
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