Pupil-to-teacher ratio to increase next school year

School Board passes revised $70.8 million 2010 budget at meeting

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Juneau School Board reluctantly voted to increase the pupil-to-teacher ratio in most grades next year after a long process of revising the 2010 budget to make room for shortfalls.

After a lengthy discussion on the district's priorities, the board passed a nearly $70.8 million budget, but in doing so will lose 13 full-time teaching positions, saving the district roughly $1.1 million.

Because of the significant decrease in the state's oil revenue, district officials do not expect the Alaska Legislature to increase funding for school districts this year. The district is expecting roughly $33.4 million in state funding based on the base student allocation remaining at $5,580.

The district expects its total revenue to be roughly $71.4 million, which includes state and city funds, budget reserves and other funding sources. The district wants to maintain a budget reserve of about half a million for additional needs, but doing so in the wake of nearly $3.3 million in increases to adjusted employee salaries will be difficult.

The revised budget voted on Monday will leave roughly $550,000 in its budget reserve for 2010. David Means, director of administrative services for the district, said the actual figure will continue to change in coming months after the Legislature decides on school funding, the eventual enrollment figures and the possibility of receiving funds from the federal stimulus package that could go toward education.

A special board meeting will be held April 21 to adjust the budget figures based on legislative action and update enrollment projections. The city's charter requires the Assembly to take action on the school district's budget by April 30.

The big issue on the table for the School Board was whether or not to change the district's pupil-to-teacher ratio.

School Board President Mark Choate said he has been hearing from schools that the pupil-teacher ratio should remain the same or improve.

"The message I get is that the most important thing to maintain is the ... current levels," he said. "The teachers are saying that, the principals are saying that ... and I think we have to sharpen our pencils and look at this budget with the idea that we're not going to balance it through the reduction of teaching staff and increase the (pupil-teacher ratio)."

The district had proposed cutting 18 positions and increasing the ratio in all grades across the district for 2010.

Choate had suggested cutting other programs or costs and not increasing the number of teachers.

Board member Phyllis Carlson said she philosophically agrees with Choate, but said she didn't agree with him on a practical level. She said there are other positions and programs that "are extremely important" to support teachers in their classrooms.

Carlson said the board has worked diligently over the years to decrease the ratio and make classrooms smaller.

Board member Andi Story said taking away support positions like librarians or music teachers could be much more detrimental to students' learning than adding one student per classroom.

After much discussion, Story advocated to leave the pupil-teacher ratio the same for the youngest students who need the extra attention most. An amendment was made to do so. The ratio for kindergarten through second grade will remain at a pupil-teacher ratio of 21 to 1.

The board voted to increase the ratio for third through fifth graders from 24:1 to 25:1, eliminating six teaching positions. It voted to increase the ratio for six through eighth grades from 20.5:1 to 21.5:1, eliminating three teaching positions. The ratio for ninth to twelfth grade classes will increase from 25.25:1 to 26.25:1, eliminating four teaching positions.

Means said the numbers are averages for those grades and won't necessarily reflect the exact count in each classroom.

Prior to Tuesday's vote, the district and school board had eliminated numerous other items prior to approving the budget on Tuesday, including administrative costs, substance abuse counselor costs, transportation costs and other items.

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