Next school year, Richmond County school system officials could have to choose between an increase in class sizes and teacher layoffs.
With more state funding cuts expected, Acting Superintendent James Whitson said Tuesday it would be wiser to increase class sizes rather than hire additional teachers, only to have to lay them off later because of funding cuts.
“We can do this now, or you’re going to be looking at laying off people at the start of next year because you can’t pay your bills, period,” Whitson said. “The fact is we’ve cut and we’ve cut and we’ve cut, and we’re out of places to cut.”
To prevent spending more on salaries, the Richmond County Board of Education’s Instruction Committee on Tuesday approved a three-student increase in class size above state guidelines in case enrollment next year makes it necessary. The same three-student waiver was in place this year but was not used.
Support for the increase varied Tuesday as committee members weighed a crowded learning environment against the possibility of layoffs. Board Vice President Venus Cain and Barbara Pulliam were the only two of the committee’s seven members to vote against the class-size increase. The full board will take a final vote at its regular meeting next Tuesday.
Cain said it was hypocritical to expect high test scores and student achievement when teachers are dealing with overcrowded classes.
“If we claim to be a world-class school system, in order to act like that, we cannot continue to raise class sizes,” she said. “We have too many students in this district that are not on grade level, not where they need to be, and we expect these teachers to work miracles.”
Although large classes are not ideal, the move is one of the few options the district has to save money, said board President Alex Howard, a committee member.
“I’d rather increase classroom size by one or two versus letting teachers go,” Howard said. “I’m trying to save teachers’ jobs.”
Class-size limits depend on the type of student, teacher and grade level, but in general, the cap is 18 for a kindergarten class, 21 through third grade, 28 in fourth and fifth grades, 28 in middle school and 35 in high school before the three-student increase.
The board discussed how school choice could help the situation next year by allowing students to transfer from overcrowded schools to those that are underenrolled.
In the end, Pulliam said the answer is in priorities. She urged the district staff to look at other departments and items to cut from the budget, especially in the central office, before turning to the classroom.
“We’re asking for excellence, but we’re not providing the environment for it to take place,” she said.