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Fight for Smaller Classes Expands

Saddleback Valley district is second to try school-by-school fund-raising despite concerns about uneven teacher-pupil ratios.

June 29, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

The Saddleback Valley Unified School District's decision to allow parents to raise funds on a school-by-school basis to forestall increases in class size could lead to uneven teacher-student ratios districtwide and heavier teacher workloads at campuses that fail to raise enough money, according to district officials.

The district's board voted 4 to 1 last week to join Capistrano Unified as the only districts in Orange County to give individual schools time to raise the money needed to keep third-grade classes limited to 20 students, district officials said.

Saddleback Valley administrators Friday sent parents letters notifying them of the dollar amounts required to prevent third-grade classes from swelling to 30 students. The price tags ranged from $13,000 at Trabuco Elementary to $104,000 at Melinda Heights.

The fund-raising deadline is July 11, said school board President Suzie Swartz. The period is short, she said, because school officials need time to assign classroom space, as well as deal with other logistical matters.

Board members are aware, Swartz added, that they are permitting an experiment that may yield mixed results. "There are certainly concerns about this," she said. "The last thing I want to see happen is to have our district divided over raising money. I think we are going to have to look and see what unfolds."

Saddleback teachers union President Janet Henry said she is glad that the jobs of dozens of teachers may be saved, but she is concerned that campuses that fail to raise the needed funds will suffer unequal workloads.

"We are between a rock and a hard place," she said.

"It's a good thing, because teachers will get hired. But on the other hand, we are going to have inequitable working conditions for third-grade teachers," she said. "I think this is a move that dismantles public education and puts it into the private arena."

Traditionally, parents of public school children have faced additional expenses for extracurricular activities.

But Capistrano and Saddleback are probably the state's only two districts permitting parents at individual schools to pay for a classroom program, said Kevin Gordon, executive director for the California Assn. of School Business Officials. The organization represents the chief financial officers for school districts throughout California.

Gordon said he applauds the willingness of parents in Saddleback and Capistrano to contribute. But the possibility of creating a two-tiered education system -- separating the haves and the have-nots -- keeps him from endorsing the move at cash-strapped districts, he said.

"I would hate to see it become a permanent feature of school finance," he said. "There are going to be hundreds and hundreds of school districts around the state that won't have this option purely because they do not have the financial resources. That would be dangerous."

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