Ga. asks for class-size waivers for all districts

ATLANTA - Georgia schools Superintendent Kathy Cox is asking that all the state's 180 school districts be allowed to increase the number of children in each classroom because of budget woes.

Cox sent a letter to the state Board of Education on Wednesday requesting that the state grant waivers of class size rules for the 2009-10 school year. Cox told the state school board that expanding class sizes in many districts could save $200 million and help avoid layoffs.

"School districts are struggling, and the biggest cost is personnel," Cox said during a committee meeting. "Maybe this means that paraprofessionals will stay on the payroll."

Under the plan, most class maximums would grow by two students, which would reduce the number of new teachers that districts would have to hire. Kindergarten would increase to 20; grades 1-3 would hit 23 and grades 4-8 would be 30. The enrollment would not increase in special education, English as a second language, fine arts and foreign language classrooms.

The waiver would only be effective statewide for one year. After that, districts would revert to the usual system of applying individually for class-size waivers.

The board is expected to vote on the measure during its monthly meeting Thursday.

Though Ms. Cox's request will bring relief next school year, Richmond County is looking for more immediate help.

Today the county school board is expected to approve a request for waivers for 15 classrooms effective this school year.

Even before the economic downturn, Richmond County struggled to meet the state's class-size requirements. Last year, the county was approved for about 60 waivers.

"We will continue to work on providing the best quality educational program with the resources made available," Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

Columbia County schools Superintendent Charles Nagle said his system must increase class sizes to operate within its budget.

"Due to the fact that 90 percent of our budget goes to salaries, the only way we're going to be able to tighten our budget is to make the changes within personnel," he said.

Mr. Nagle said he hopes to reduce the system's payroll through attrition and the elimination of some teaching positions.

Cox stressed that the statewide waiver does not mean districts are required to expand their class size, but instead gives systems flexibility to deal with falling property tax collections and state funding.

Board members expressed concern that even modest class size increases will hurt how much one-on-one time teachers can spend with children, which can impair how much they learn.

"No one on this board wants to do this," said board member Mary Sue Murray. "But times are tough, and I think we're really going to have to go this way."

State lawmakers passed a law with class-size limits in 2006 to help improve students' performance on standardized tests and increase high school graduation rates. Experts have long agreed that small classes are better learning environments, particularly in the elementary school grades.

It's important that the state not extend the inflated limits beyond one year, Georgia Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard said.

"We're disappointed it's come to this," said Hubbard.

The 2006 law limits class sizes in core classes - math, science, social studies and language arts - from kindergarten through middle school. Georgia lawmakers tried but failed to pass similar ceilings for high school classes in 2007.

Staff writers Greg Gelpi and Donnie Fetter contributed to this story.