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By Brian Park
Despite protests from parents who said their children are stuck in crowded classrooms, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees on Wednesday moved ahead with fee waiver requests that allow for increased class sizes.
Fee waivers approved by the state Department of Education eliminate penalties for classes above state-prescribed limits.
CUSD’s waivers, which are extensions of waivers granted for the 2011 through 2013 school years, will allow average class sizes for kindergarten, first through third grade and fourth through eighth grade to go above 31, 30 and 29.9 students, respectively. The waiver also allows individual class sizes to increase to more than 33 students in kindergarten and 32 students in the first through third grades, with maximums of 35 for each of those grade levels.
With negotiations with the teachers’ union expected to begin, following revision of the district’s budget in May, Superintendent Joseph Farley said the waivers, at the expense of allowing for possible increases in class sizes, provides financial flexibility at the collective bargaining table.
“This waiver is really a safety valve because we really don’t know what will happen,” Farley said, citing ongoing discussions in Sacramento regarding Gov. Joseph Brown’s budget proposal. At this point, Farley said, the district will likely have to cut $20 million from its budget. According to Assistant Superintendent Julie Hatchel, if the district hadn’t received its fee waivers last year, the district would have incurred $4.2 million in penalties for grades kindergarten through third grade alone.
“I see a real danger without having this flexibility,” Farley said. “We really do not know until the political process plays out.”
However, previous waivers always led to increased class sizes, parents complained. Parents urged the board to take a stand to limit class sizes, saying large class sizes hindered students’ ability to learn and overburdened teachers.
“It is a solution of last resort, as (the classroom) is our greatest point of impact, where the rubber hits the road,” said Heather Brown, a parent with a student at Concordia Elementary School. Brown told the district in her child’s class, there are 40 students. “As a district, we are continually kicking the can down the road.”
The school board voted 5-2 to approve the waiver requests, with trustees Ellen Addonizio and Jim Reardon in opposition. Although the school board continually emphasized their preference for smaller class sizes, trustees Lynn Hatton and Anna Bryson both cited their own research of education studies, which they said asserted having good teachers in classrooms was a greater indicator of success than small classes.
“That’s not to say it’s appropriate to have too many students in the class,” Bryson said. “The heavyweight goes to having a good teacher in front of your class.”
Bryson said despite the board’s preference for smaller class sizes, the district is hamstrung by budgetary concerns and state deadlines for fee waivers. Bryson urged parents to write to their local legislators to voice their concerns.
“You really have to go to the people who have destroyed all the budgets for education in this state,” Bryson said. “If we don’t give ourselves the correct timetable here and follow it to the letter, I assure you we can find ourselves in a very difficult circumstance … the boom will be lowered.”
Terri Mostert, a San Clemente resident and a teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District, told the board that a higher priority must be placed on students during the district’s negotiations with the teachers’ union.
“The enormity of budget shortfalls is not being disputed. However, the constant need to have the children bear the burden for adult mistakes is,” Mostert said. “The district and the union must find an avenue that is not detrimental to our students.”