Speer: It has to come down to the class size

“Class size” has been an educational buzz word for decades now. Finding that right balance between teacher and students inside a classroom is important, but perhaps even more so today as competition with private entities makes public education very sensitive to the overall educational experience being offered to today’s student.

As Alpena Public Schools administrators and board continue negotiations with teachers, much of the focus and discussion around town has been on salaries, wage rollbacks, food banks, sit-ins and treating all employees the same.

It makes for lively and interesting coffee table fodder.

Lost perhaps in the discussions has been consistent proposals from the Alpena Education Association to minimize wage rollbacks to their teachers and instead, sacrifice teaching positions as a means for the district to save money. While certainly it’s a proposal that would create a considerable savings for the district, it also is one that would appear in contradiction to years past, when the union fought hard to keep class sizes from getting too large.

“Common sense tells us – and research confirms it – that the number of students in a class can make a real difference for students and teachers alike.”

The above paragraph are the first words of a National Education Association policy brief written in 2008.

Indeed, in the most recent contract between the AEA and APS, the pupil to teacher ratio was very clearly defined as “elementary 27:1 and secondary, 28:1.” Specifically, in the elementary, it was further divided into “kindergarten, 26; grades 1-3, 28; and grades 4-5, 29.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting to view the negotiation process to date. The AEA has been willing to sacrifice jobs to preserve wages, the administration has not.

According to documents filed with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth Employment Relations Commission in a fact finder’s report, the AEA on June 10 made an initial proposal to the district that preserved teachers’ levels at their current levels by reducing 30 teacher positions within the district. In a district with 202 teachers, that represented a 14.85 percent reduction in the workforce.

The offer was presented to school board members who considered, but were not in favor of it because of the extent of the cuts.

A tentative agreement was reached in August with both sides that called for no teacher layoffs, but a 8.5 percent reduction in salary. Union members rejected the agreement.

APS Superintendent Brent Holcomb, in discussing the rejection at the time, told The Alpena News it was the district’s intent to keep quality education for APS students, including keeping staffing levels appropriate for the classroom.

“We are not going to put 40 kids in a classroom to balance the budget,” Holcomb said. “Our financial position is not going to change without concessions, and the opportunity to bargain a contract is not going to get better.”

Earlier this year in February a fact finder recommended a 5.5 percent wage reduction and the loss of 10 teaching positions.

The AEA is on record publicly that through teacher retirements and by returning to a semester year instead of tri-mester, those reductions could be accomplished.

The administration disagrees.

A press release this week stated “the board of education has so far rejected large staff cuts, believing reducing staff greatly impacts students, and significantly harms those workers who are out of a job – and their families.”

The challenge of balancing a school budget with maintaining manageable class sizes is not a foreign concept to union officials.

“Meaningful reductions in class sizes have been difficult to achieve because of tight school budgets and competing priorities, but we must continue towards this goal,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in that 2008 report mentioned earlier. “The proven long-term benefits of reducing class sizes – achievement gains and higher graduation rates – should help determine our priorities. The long-term consequences of not reducing class sizes will have a negative impact on our children’s futures.”

The administration agrees. “… Every teaching post lost reduces what a school district offers; in the classroom, to many students it means each gets less of a teacher’s individual attention and special skill.”

And ultimately, for a district in a state deficit elimination program, competing against private schools for the same students, class size could make the difference between surviving or barely existing.

“Families dissatisfied with the quality of education may take their children to other schools, and that leads to even more declining enrollment and lost revenue,” this week’s district press release stated.

With one charter school already within his district’s boundaries, Holcomb would prefer not to see another. Administrators don’t want to wake up one morning and read in the newspaper of a charter high school being considered for the region.

That’s what led to this week’s board action of imposing the wage concessions on its 202 teachers.

Shared sacrifice.

Unfortunately, it is a concept almost all of us have had to accept, adjust to and deal with in recent years – wherever we work.

Just ask the other 278 employees of the district.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13. Read his blog, More BS?(Bill Speer) at www.thealpenanews.com.