Education 101: Now is Time to Talk Class Size

by Save Our Schools Los Alamos

On Wednesday April 23, the Los Alamos Public Schools Administration will hold a community meeting to discuss a number of issues, including expected class size for the next school year.  The meeting is scheduled for 5pm in the Topper Theater at the High School.  Class size is a major variable in education financing and is an issue that merits a robust discussion between LAPS and the community.

Save Our Schools Los Alamos was created last fall after unusually large classes were formed in several elementary schools.  At that time, parents were told that it was too late to act; that LAPS didn’t have the funds to hire more teachers and that qualified teachers weren’t available at that late date.  Since then, our group has researched and written about education funding — 18 articles to date under the Education 101 column published by the LADailyPost.com.

We’ve learned a lot about the relationship between class size and education funding.  Our articles typically provide a lot of sourced information that explains why things are the way they currently are.  Today, given the timeliness of the budget discussion and since LAPS already expects more crowding in a number of classes next year, we thought we’d provide an editorial perspective on how the community and LAPS can move forward in a collaborative manner to achieve an understanding about class sizes.

Based on our personal experience, we think that the time to address class size is now in the spring, when the budget is developed; not in late summer, when students report to overcrowded classrooms and qualified new teachers are impossible to find.

First, There Is A Funding Problem

LAPS Administration is justifiably concerned about the impact of declining enrollment on its financial situation.  In-district enrollment has been declining by about 2% per year for a number of years. Fewer students mean less funding from the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED), which provides funding on a weighted per student basis.  You might think that if enrollment is declining, class sizes would be dropping, but that’s not the case.

In order to pay for the current services provided by the district’s high school, middle school and 5 elementary schools, the district says that it needs funding for at least 3,500 students.  About $30 million of the $36 million school budget goes to employee salaries and benefits, with most of the rest going to fixed costs like utilities and other fixed costs that are not variable within modest enrollment ranges.  So when enrollments drop, the fixed costs still need to be covered and a disproportionate reduction impacts classroom instruction.  Some teachers lost through retirement or attrition are not replaced in order to reduce costs, and class sizes can rise.  Enrollment for 2015 is forecasted to drop below 3,500 to 3,474, down from an enrollment of 3,509 in 2014.

Another ongoing pressure comes in the form of inflation.  The Federal Government supports LAPS with a fixed annual subsidy of $8 million.  When instituted in 1997, the subsidy accounted for 35% of LAPS operating costs.  In 2014, because of inflation, it covered just 22% of LAPS costs.  The purchasing power of the Federal subsidy will continue to decline in the future.

LAPS Administration has aggressively worked to offset the loss to inflation and to mitigate the impact of enrollment declines by leasing surplus property and by recruiting out-of-district students to make up for in-district declines.  However, with enhancements at McCurdy School in Espanola and with the voluntary staff reductions at the Lab, the number of in-district and interested out-of-district students is shrinking.  It’s not clear at this time whether recruiting out-of-district students will be a viable approach for keeping the 3,500 student population that’s matched to our fixed infrastructure, or whether at some point the district will have to readjust to the student-based revenue and expense profile of a smaller school district.  We think it’s too early to know how this issue will play out in the long run, but how this is handled for the coming school year is an issue that is squarely before LAPS and the community.

The Need to Look at All Costs, not just Class Size

Given the anticipated enrollment declines, it’s understandable that the LAPS Administration wants to find ways to cut costs now.  It’s good for any organization to regularly reassess how it operates and to look for ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively.  To date, the Administration’s main approach has been to trim teachers through attrition and the impacts have been felt in larger class sizes at elementary schools.

As an alternative, it would be possible to start the process with class size caps, and to work on other costs and on revenue opportunities, with capped class sizes as a defined cost driver.

Class Size Maximums

In a 2011 Community Survey by the LAPS Board, the community was polled about educational priorities.  A very large respondent base of 700 citizens and teachers ranked small class size as the community’s number 1 priority out of 170 spending elements ranked.  The National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education strongly endorse small class size.  There are a number of research studies with sample sizes in the hundreds of thousands that demonstrate the positive impact of small class sizes on student achievement.

Given its importance to community members, to our students’ educational experience, and its impact on cost, class size should be the central topic in this year’s difficult budget deliberations.  Especially so because under the traditional LAPS budget approach, class size has been an outcome of the process rather than being a driver of the process, suggesting that there is a disconnect between the LAPS Administration and the broader community on this issue.

For the 2013-2014 school year, class size was treated as a result in a long and complex process.  For the coming budget year, we encourage the LAPS Administration to cap class size by grade at levels that are consistent with our community’s desire for small class sizes; and to build the budget around class size as an entering argument.

This approach would give the community an understanding of maximum class sizes — before the first day of school — and would help the Administration identify recruiting needs now, while those needs are still actionable. The community deserves to know how class sizes will be managed; it is completely appropriate for the community’s number 1 priority to receive this attention and consideration.

With planning and forethought by the LAPS administration, this approach could have been taken this past year; a few additional teachers could have been added in a timely manner; and small class sizes could have been maintained.

This lost opportunity is especially vexing as LAPS is now projected to end the school year with an operating surplus of almost $800,000 and an almost $7 million dollar operating reserve fund.  A very, very small portion of those available resources could have and should have been used to address class size in a thoughtful and proactive way, rather than unnecessarily and adversely impacting students and teachers through large class sizes.  Let’s not make that same mistake again in the coming school year.

To learn more about Save Our Schools Los Alamos and read our prior articles about K-12 education funding, go to http://soslosalamos.com.

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