"As always, it's going to hurt the students," said Dukes, a parent of two Glenn Hills Elementary School pupils and the school's PTO president.
Dukes said he understands the financial reasons behind the state board's decision to give increased flexibility to local school boards, but he worries that as class sizes continue to grow, students who need extra teacher attention could get left behind.
"When you go from 24 to 34, or whatever it is, we may lose that kid through the loop," he said.
The decision Monday by the state board of education grants local school boards the authority to set their own class sizes without state approval.
"School districts have been financially devastated by the economy, so the state board took action to help districts balance their budgets," state board chairwoman Wanda Barrs said in a news release. "Increasing class size is never ideal, but a slight increase will allow systems to significantly conserve resources while managing through these difficult times."
Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said local school boards will be asked to pass a resolution stating that they plan to exceed the state's current class size maximums. In the resolution, he said, districts must note what class size maximums they plan to initiate for the coming year "so the public is fully aware of any of the changes the local board will make."
Cardoza said the boards will have the flexibility to adjust that figure throughout the school year.
Previously, school systems whose classes exceeded the state's size limit had two remedies: split a class up and hire another teacher or seek a waiver from the state to keep the class intact.
Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett said the waiver process caused a lot of administrative work that would now go away.
"I think it will probably make a smoother process because you don't have to ask for all these exceptions," he said.
In January, Richmond County's Board of Education sought a state waiver to increase its maximum level for elementary and English as a second language classes by two students. Because of larger classes sizes this past school year, Columbia County was able to eliminate more than 70 teaching positions.
Unrestricted class sizes this coming school year likely won't be a significant help to Columbia County school officials, but it might prove advantageous the next school year should the state board continue to honor the moratorium on limits, Superintendent Charles Nagle said.
Columbia County school board members will meet Wednesday and are expected to give tentative approval to a $165 million budget that includes millions in classroom cuts. The school system has lost about $21 million in state funding since 2007, including $6 million for next school year. Officials compensated for much of that by increasing class sizes and eliminating teaching and para-professional positions. A plan is already in place to cut almost 70 more parapro positions during the 2010-11 school year.
If more state cuts are coming for next school year, Nagle said, raising class sizes might prove more favorable than cutting more teachers or parapros.
In Richmond County, enrollment is expected to increase next school year, and a $16.7 million revenue shortfall will require that 35 more teaching positions be cut through attrition. Padgett said it's all but certain more class-size increases will be needed.
"I really think that (the state board's decision) is a blessing to us," he said, adding "I don't think the state had any choice."
Board member Jimmy Atkins said that though he's not in favor of completely doing away with classroom size maximums, but he does believe the schools need some flexibility during the budget crisis.
When it comes to setting classroom size limits locally, he said, "I know in Richmond County we would use good common sense."
Staff Writer Donnie Fetter contributed to this article.