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Irvine to Increase Size of 3rd Grade

Schools: Board votes to abandon popular program to help address a $5.2-million budget shortfall.

January 23, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irvine school board members voted late Tuesday to increase class sizes in third grade, making the high-scoring district among the first in the state to walk away from a popular class-size reduction program.

Trustees were still debating whether to make first- and second-grade classes larger as well.

Board members said before the night was out they would make more painful choices to address a $5.2-million budget shortfall. Trustees were considering trimming more than 20 programs, from school nurses to music and science classes.

If the board approves all the slated cuts, about 120 teachers, or 10%, could be laid off, said Anne Caenn, president of the Irvine teachers union.

The board also voted Tuesday, as expected, to close Los Naranjos Elementary School.

"We are writing a sad chapter in the history of this district," said Steven Choi, board president. "Not just in the district, but in the city."

Union president Caenn expressed sadness as well.

"I don't know if I could make these decisions," she said. "Tonight, Irvine Unified School District will change our profile and join the ranks of the average."

Many of the 200 parents who attended the meeting said they would not want to be in the trustees' shoes, being faced with tough decisions. But others, like Vickie Lynn Bibro, castigated the board for cutting academics while retaining sports teams.

"I am appalled," said Bibro, mother of several Irvine school district children. "You're making the wrong choices . . . . It's not right and you know it."

But many said that they felt they had little choice but to abandon the smaller class sizes.

Though the state picks up much of the cost for the 6-year-old initiative, each year districts must pay a greater proportion for salaries and extra classrooms as new teachers climb the pay scale faster than state funding keeps up.

With the state facing budget cuts, Irvine is not the only school system having trouble paying for the popular but expensive program.

Until this year, nearly all of California's 900 eligible school systems were part of the program, which caps class size at 20, down from more than 30, in most primary grades.

The Val Verde district in Riverside County, which lacks classrooms and has no money to build new ones, already has increased class sizes in second and third grades. First-grade classes could grow next fall. Capistrano Unified School District Supt. James A. Fleming said his district may be forced to increase third-grade class size if the state budget allocation for schools doesn't rise.

Several more districts notified a state education group that they are considering increasing the number of students in primary classes.

Kevin Gordon, executive director of the California Assn. of School Business Officials, the group that surveyed districts about the program, said he believes more districts will have to increase kindergarten or third-grade class sizes next year, but hesitate to say so publicly because they fear reaction from parents and teachers.

Under the state plan, districts must start shrinking classes in first grade, then move onto second, and finally third and kindergarten.

The program also requires that every class have 20 students or fewer, or the school risks losing funding. The problem is that new children turn up throughout the year, meaning school officials must set class sizes at 18, and even combine grades and bus students away from their neighborhood schools to keep totals under 20.

Many local officials favor changing the law to allow as many as 22 students in some classes, as long as the average class size remains at 20.

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