Albemarle School Board ups class size, cuts programs and teachers

With only a week left to slash $3.9 million dollars from its budget, the Albemarle School Board found itself making some painful decisions during a work session Thursday.

While the votes taken were not final, and while the Board has until April 24th to adopt its budget, the Board did vote to increase class size averages, reduce salary increases, defund its share of pre-k, and cut discretionary funds for all schools and departments by five percent.

“This budget cycle has been one of the most arduous ones I’ve been a part of,” Superintendent Pam Moran said. “I don’t think there’s anyone here who wants to see class size increases, and I think we could use some additional support.”

Thursday’s meeting was marked by the Board debating each line item on its potential cut list, and voting on reductions of nearly every item until it reached a balanced budget.

Priorities heading into the work session, and also the two most costly line items, were protecting class size averages and two percent raises for staff.

The Board voted 4-3 in favor of increasing class size averages by 0.2. Eric Strucko, Jason Buyaki, and Ned Gallaway voted against the motion.

Strucko argued that all options should be exhausted before upping class sizes.

“This is detrimental, let’s not couch this in softer terms,” Strucko said, adding that the action would hurt instruction and that he would not support a budget that proposed any class size increase.

While Board member Kate Acuff said she was reluctant to add more students to classrooms, she views instructional quality differently.

“Class size is one of the variables that impacts the quality of education, but so is professional development, so I don’t think the research shows that class size is the only thing that matters,” Acuff said.

Albemarle Spokesman Phil Giaramita said the increase would impact between eight and nine full-time equivalent positions, but that it is unlikely any of those individuals would be let go immediately.

“It’s more likely to impact a teacher who would go from full- to part-time,” Giaramita said.

However, Giaramita added, 77 teachers have already received Reduction in Force letters, and some of those might not be called back in this summer.

Historically, the division distributes about 80 RIF letters per year. As enrollment numbers firm up over the summer, most of those teachers are given contracts.

Board member Steve Koleszar has long believed that the quality of instruction trumps class size, and argued that class size could become less of an issue as the division grows its online curriculum.

“Technology often allows the same number of people to do more work, but if we get locked into a [staffing] ratio, we might not see the fruits,” Koleszar said.

Board member Barbara Massie Mouly disagreed.

“My understanding is that the teachers work hard on units that will work online, and because they don’t see the students, they funnel more assignments through to get to know the students,” Massie Mouly said.

Board member Pam Moynihan said adding students to classes caused problems at the high school level when the division tried it a few years ago, and the Board had to add teachers back.

Despite that, Moynihan said she had to vote for the increase because the Board voted to reduce the raises from two percent to one, rather than the 0.5 percent she preferred.

The Board voted 4-3 to cut discretionary budgets for all schools and departments by five percent at the discretion of staff. Pam Moynihan, Kate Acuff, and Steve Koleszar voted against the motion.

While they voted for the measure, Board members Jason Buyaki and Eric Strucko argued that discretionary budgets be cut by 10 percent.

“To me it’s a choice between this and firing teachers,” Strucko said.

“There are non-essential funds here like bottled water, food, and catering,” Buyaki said, “funds that aren’t essential for an education.”

Acuff disagreed.

“I support protecting the discretion of our principals to run their schools,” Acuff said. “That’s why we hired them.”

Other reductions included initiatives like interpretation services, a move to paperless evaluations, the Safe Schools Healthy Students grant continuation, and restorations to the learning resources, professional development, and athletics budgets.

Additionally, the Board voted to remove $289,754 for the Bright Stars pre-k program from its budget.

While all Board members agreed that the program is a valuable and necessary service, they feel local government should pay for it, as they are the entity mandated to provide the service, and they covered the costs when the program first started.

“A few years ago, when local government was in some budget difficulty, they asked the school division to help out and this item has remained in the school division’s budgets ever since,” Giaramita said.  

The Board did, however, manage to retain two initiatives.

They opted to keep half of the $250,000 in Design 2015—the division’s innovation fund—as those monies were earmarked for lab renovations at Western Albemarle High School, which is slated to host an Environmental Sciences Academy in the fall.

The Board also saved $137,132 and two full-time equivalents to grow the world languages pilot at Cale Elementary School.

“There was a lot of parent support, and it’s a pilot for the whole school system,” Acuff said. “If we don’t protect it, we’d have to start all over.”

Moynihan agreed.

“We’ve already put money into developing these programs,” Moynihan said. “It’s the same with the program at Western. It doesn’t behoove us to end them prematurely because we’re already into it, and we value it.”

Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun said that without the funds, the division could have kept the pilot stagnant, but not grown it.

Currently the pilot serves grades kindergarten and one. Without the additional funds, rising second graders would have either returned to a traditional curriculum, or the pilot would have followed the current group of students up a grade level, but not served incoming kindergarteners.

Haun said that could have had long-term implications, because over time the division will have to change the middle school Spanish curriculum, as the students will be more advanced.

The School Board also agreed that they will communicate with the Board of Supervisors, specifically about the division’s need to increase class size in order to balance the budget.

The School Board will adopt a final budget on Thursday, April 24.