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School Districts Scramble to Cut Classroom Size

Education: Administrators say their budgets won't cover the cost of hiring new teachers and adding new facilities.

July 21, 1996|ERIC WAHLGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thousand Oaks is looking for 80 teachers, Oxnard has ordered 92 portable classrooms and Camarillo is thinking about turning school libraries into class space.

Across Ventura County, school districts are scrambling to take advantage of new state money promised to schools that cut class sizes in primary grades to 20 students.

But local districts, like schools statewide, are finding that money provided in Gov. Pete Wilson's $771-million initiative is simply not enough to shrink all first- through third-grade classes.

Not only does the initiative not cover the full cost of hiring the new teachers, it does nothing to address the shortage of teachers or space for the smaller classes.

"The program doesn't pay for itself," said David Philips, superintendent of the Santa Paula Elementary School District. "It's a great start, but we will have some headaches to deal with."

The best many districts can do in the coming school year is launch a scaled-down version of the plan in the first grade only.

If schools countywide wanted to shrink class size to 20 in three grades, they would have to find more than 475 new teachers and classrooms to accommodate students, said Charles Weis, county superintendent of schools.

"It is not feasible to hire 475 teachers," Weis said. "I don't think that there are 475 teachers out there who are available. Secondly, the vast majority of our schools don't have empty classrooms."

Education experts estimate that Wilson's plan will create a need for up to 20,000 new teachers statewide to fill new classrooms, which could cause a severe shortage of qualified teachers. Last year, only about 4,779 candidates received their teaching credentials, said Bob Blattner of School Services of California Inc., a consulting firm for public school districts.

Because county schools like others across the state are overcrowded and lack money to build new facilities, they must install portables--movable classrooms--to create new space. Despite the need for more than 15,000 new portables, only about 2,500 are built every year in California, Blattner said.

Although the state estimates that it will cost $775 per student to limit class size to 20 pupils, the state pays only $650 per student to schools that reach the goal, Weis said. Districts would have to pony up the additional $125 per student, which could end up costing county districts millions.

"That means that districts are going to have to cut other programs to make this happen," Weis said.

Educators say that students do better in school when class size, which now reaches as high as 32 pupils, decreases. The education reform grant proposal aims to lower the teacher-to-student ratio in kindergarten through the third grade, when students need the most attention from instructors, teachers say.

But because of the problems of putting the plan into place, some school districts plan to create smaller class sizes in steps, with some starting only with the first grade.

Camarillo's Pleasant Valley School District, which held a job fair for potential candidates in June, is poised to hire up to 14 new first grade teachers.

District officials are now trying to find space to put these new teachers and their students by converting libraries, multipurpose rooms and other facilities.

But Supt. Shirley Carpenter said she is not sure how much it will cost to lower classroom sizes. The district officials will make plans to expand the program to other grades once they nail down figures.

"Right now we are trying to pull together a complete picture of every possible dollar that is coming through [the governor's budget]," Carpenter said.

The Simi Valley Unified School District appears to be moving swiftly to cut class size with plans to reduce the number of students in three primary grades districtwide.

District board members on Thursday considered spending nearly $500,000 in extra state revenue to add to the state's $2.8-million portion of the class-size reduction plan, said district official David Kanthak.

Kanthak, the district's assistant superintendent for business services, said the money would pay to hire 75 new teachers. But Kanthak cautioned that the board must still approve the plan at a meeting in August and that the scarcity of extra classroom space could hold up the program.

School board members at Thursday's meeting talked about using excess facilities at local businesses and opening two closed schools requiring extensive renovation--costs that Kanthak said are not covered in money the district has available.

"Finding the rooms is the barrier," Kanthak said. "If the space is going to cost money, that is not included.

Elaine McKearn, a Conejo Valley Unified School District board member, said district officials in Thousand Oaks are also handcuffed by the lack of space but have approved the hiring of as many as 80 new teachers.

When the state money comes through, she said the district plans to put students in the first through third grades in rooms of no more than 20 pupils.

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