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School board signs off on new Riverbend teacher

Expenditure 'a gamble,' board president says

Posted: September 12, 2012 - 12:02am

The Juneau School District Board of Education approved a recommendation Tuesday evening to allow Riverbend Elementary School to add a primary teacher and Juneau-Douglas High School to alleviate crowding in its science laboratory classes — a step toward addressing “enrollment bulges” in the 2012-13 school year.

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich acknowledged that enrollment in the school district has exceeded projections by 21 students, with 4,937 enrolled instead of the 4,916 projected, and that this situation has caused class sizes to exceed the approved pupil-to-teacher ratio at some schools.

“Of all of the enrollment challenges that we have … the two places where we see the greatest impact right on a classroom are the science lab classes at Juneau-Douglas High School and the primary grades at Riverbend,” Gelbrich told the board. “So the proposal is to add a primary grade teacher at Riverbend; to add a physical science class section, one section, at Juneau-Douglas High School; and a biology section at Juneau-Douglas High School.”

Riverbend currently has 130 students in its primary classes and only five primary teachers. All five primary classes exceed the PTR of 22 students for each teacher, and it has two classes with 28 students.

The recommendation marked an expenditure of $116,526 for the district, according to the agenda item prepared by the superintendent’s office.

Gelbrich warned that expenditure cuts into the district’s already anemic budget reserve.

The district is assuming that 89 “intensive needs” students, for whom the JSD receives additional state funding, will be identified — six more than the 83 that have already qualified. It is also assuming that overall enrollment will remain constant through October.

If the district’s assumptions hold, Gelbrich said, “We believe that we can do that based upon the numbers and the ending fund balance from last year, and we can still maintain a $500,000 projected ending fund balance for fiscal year 2013.”

Sally Saddler, president of the school board, offered reluctant support for the recommendation.

“This seems to be, to me, a risk and a gamble,” said Saddler. “But it’s not acceptable to have the classroom sizes that we have. We need to do something about it. But I just need to understand the consequences if the enrollment dollars don’t materialize. How would cuts play out? I mean, we would be making cuts mid-year, right?”

“We would,” Gelbrich answered. “We’re on dangerous ice already. … We’ve been skating next to the edge for a long time because we’ve been trying to do everything possible with the dollars available to us to get the resources into the classroom.”

Board members Barbara Thurston and Mark Choate suggested that exemptions to the school boundaries could be offered to give parents whose children are not thriving in larger classes the option of sending them to less crowded schools, such as Auke Bay Elementary School.

“If we have situations where classrooms are very large, and we have a reality which is that we can’t hire enough teachers to take care of that, and there are options for the parents who want to go to a different school because that school has lower class sizes, it seems to me that the board should at least let parents have that option,” Choate said.

But Gelbrich and Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling expressed discomfort with the idea.

“Even if you move forward and open up boundary exemptions as an opportunity, we do not provide transportation … across the district for boundary exemptions,” said Scandling. “Therefore, those families, whether we intend it or not, will be those families that can drive their children to school and can pick their children up at 2:30 (p.m.)”

Board member Kim Poole also disagreed with the proposition Choate advanced.

“One-year decisions are remembered the next year, and can be carried over,” Poole said. Of the enrollment bulges, she added, “I have faith in our teachers. I think some of this can really handle this.”

Gelbrich urged caution on making a “policy-level decision” too quickly.

“My worry is that in the interest of this idea of opening things up, I think it would be easy for us to … go too fast and create some really serious unintended consequences,” said Gelbrich.

That argument won Thurston over.

“I have to agree with Glenn that I think making a policy decision on the fly is not the way to do this,” Thurston said. “I would agree that doing something tonight is likely to have unintended consequences that we don’t want.”

In order to accommodate JDHS’s extra science lab sections, two-tenths of an FTE, or full-time equivalent, will be voluntarily transferred from Thunder Mountain High School, Gelbrich said.

“They’re relinquishing .2 FTE — one section of a teacher,” said Gelbrich.

Parent Laurie Berg pointed out that Harborview Elementary School’s primary class enrollment is also above PTR, and she asked that the board also add a teacher for that school.

“I do think that you should just cut into your $500,000,” Berg said, referring to the projected end-of-year budget reserve.

But the board opted not to amend the administration’s recommendation. It was adopted without objection, to cheers and clapping from some members of the audience.

One of the “really excited” attendees was Shannon Avenson, Riverbend’s principal, who said Riverbend will create a blended kindergarten and first grade class to relieve pressure on other class sizes.

“That will actually reduce class sizes from kinder through second grade,” said Avenson. “So we will no longer have a 28.”

Riverbend should have a new classroom teacher “in a couple of weeks,” Avenson said, with the new class perhaps forming as early as next week under a substitute teacher.

“We’ll juggle class lists a little bit,” Avenson said. “That’s what we need to do.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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