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Overcrowding still an issue at Harborview

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 12:09am
  Randi Spray / Juneau Empire
Randi Spray / Juneau Empire

While the Juneau School District Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to provide for an additional teacher at Riverbend Elementary School, some parents are wondering why Harborview Elementary School was not selected for extra staffing.

Both Riverbend and Harborview are coping with overcrowding in classrooms, with class sizes exceeding the approved pupil-to-teacher ratio of 22 students for each teacher in their primary classes — kindergarten through second grade.

One parent, Laurie Berg, asked the district to allow for another teacher at Harborview at the school board’s meeting Tuesday, even if it meant cutting into the district’s projected end-of-year $500,000 fund balance.

“I believe that it’s totally unfair for Harborview to have 26 kindergarten kids (per class) and Auke Bay to have 19, 19, 19,” said Berg, referring to Auke Bay Elementary School’s smaller kindergarten class sizes.

The board ultimately agreed to adopt the administration’s recommendation of adding a full-time teacher at Riverbend, not taking up Berg’s suggestion.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, and effectively until a new blended kindergarten and first grade class can be created, Riverbend has been one teacher short of what PTR indicates for its 130 primary students, with just five teachers right now.

But Harborview is one teacher short as well. It has seven teachers for the 176 primary students enrolled as of Sept. 5, when the district last compiled enrollment information for each of its schools.

Dividing the total number of primary students by the approved ratio of 22 primary students to a class yields a result of 5.91 teachers for Riverbend, per PTR. For Harborview, the number is eight.

David Means, director of administrative services for the JSD, said that while enrollment numbers have remained mostly steady at Riverbend since last month, Harborview has seen more late enrollment.

“The growth at Harborview seems to be occurring a little bit later than earlier,” Means said. “I think they have picked up about five or six students between now and the time school began.”

Harborview parent Kurt Iverson crunched his own numbers for the actual pupil-to-teacher ratios at each elementary school.

“Harborview was nearly at the same level as Riverbend was for the K-2 ratios, and now it is by far the highest in the district,” Iverson said Wednesday. “And all of the individual classrooms in Harborview, K through fifth (grade), exceed the target PTRs.”

The PTR for intermediate classes — third grade through fifth grade — is 26.5 students per teacher.

Iverson found that Riverbend, Harborview and Mendenhall River Community School have, on average, more primary students per class than 22, with their largest primary classes having 26, 28 and 27 students respectively, according to the Sept. 5 enrollment report.

The enrollment report also indicates that several primary classes at Mendenhall River are at or below PTR, but none are at Riverbend or Harborview.

“I think they need another teacher in Harborview, and I think somewhere … they can find the money for it,” said Iverson.

Board President Sally Saddler said Wednesday that the school district cannot address all of its needs.

“If we had enough money to fund all classroom sizes at 21 students a teacher, I would be the first one to do it,” Saddler said. “The reality is, we don’t have the money.”

The JSD has been digging its way out of a budget crisis, cutting several dozen staff positions and approving PTR increases for two consecutive years.

The budget situation has also recently been cited by district officials in explaining cuts to the school nurse program and difficulties this year in negotiating a contract agreement with the Juneau Education Association, the union representing most of Juneau’s schoolteachers.

“It’s all about striking the appropriate balance,” said Saddler. “Everything that we have is a compelling need.”

Saddler added, “I think as board members, we struggle to meet all of those priorities to the best of our ability within the resources that we have.”

But Iverson was not satisfied.

“It boils down to, ‘Where are your priorities? How serious are you about PTRs?’” said Iverson, who works as a fisheries analyst with the State of Alaska. “Because you can take care of that in a budget. You can have those contingencies.”

Means indicated that adding more staff now would come with a definite cost.

“What we’d have to do is examine our overall budget to determine if we could make some cuts elsewhere,” said Means. “I think that, administratively, the superintendent and I and several others will need to seriously look at the situation.”

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich did not respond Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment.

Despite its budget crunch, the JSD should account for uncertainty in its projections when deciding how to staff schools before each school year, Iverson argued.

“Everyone knows that there’s going to be fluctuations between the projections and the actuals,” Iverson said. “If I was in their position, I would be looking retrospectively at how well these projections have performed in the past. … I would structure my budget based upon that. I would build contingencies into my budget based on how much confidence I had in the projections.”

In the 2012-13 school year, 4,937 students are enrolled in the district instead of the 4,916 projected, according to an agenda item from the superintendent’s office presented at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

Means said the projections, which were done by the late economist David Reaume, were actually fairly accurate.

“Overall, our enrollment figures are not that far off,” said Means. “We are 21 students above, and that’s less than one-half of one percent for the district.”

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

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