An increase in class size represents the biggest chunk of potential savings the county school system is considering in the face of a projected $140 million budget shortfall.
Adding one student to the student-to-teacher ratio in county schools would narrow the gap for next year’s budget by an estimated $26.9 million. However, the savings would need to be weighed carefully against effects on the classroom environment, the School Board recognized in a work session on Monday.
Raising class sizes by one student per teacher would have the biggest financial impact by far of the 50 possible cost-saving measures on the table at the meeting between the Board and Superintendent Karen Garza. Most of the other options being considered to help balance the budget address much smaller pieces of the overall funding, a problem for a school system staring down such a large deficit.
However, an increase to class size is a tough sell for all involved in the budget process, from Garza and School Board members to teachers and parents.
“It’s never fun to talk about this because we’re having to talk about making changes to the face of the school system,” said Board member Kathy Smith (Sully District).
According to a report from the Washington Area Boards of Education, Fairfax County’s class sizes for the last school year ranked in the middle of the pack among 10 area school districts across all grade levels.
For example, in elementary grades, excluding kindergarten which operates on separate student-to-teacher ratio, Fairfax County schools had an average of 21.4 students per teacher in the school year that ended in June. That put Fairfax ahead of both Loudoun (23.4) and Prince William (23.3) counties, but behind Montgomery County (19.6) and Alexandria City (20.1).
Fairfax County averaged 24.3 students per teacher in middle schools and 25.0 students per teacher in high schools.
“Part of the reason we are so successful in Fairfax is because our class sizes are lower than state regulations and lower than other school districts,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, an advocacy group for county teachers. “We could lose that edge if class sizes increase. This is not what is best for our students or our county.”
Already parents have started an online petition protesting the raising of class sizes. The petition started on Sunday and by Thursday had already gathered 395 signatures.
Yet despite the worries, School Board members said on Monday that they could not strike an increase in the student-to-teacher ratio from consideration as a result of the dire fiscal outlook.
While a class size increase remains up for discussion, it may be present in the final budget in another iteration. School Board members asked Superintendent Garza to provide a breakdown of the projected savings by school level, allowing them to consider the issue separately for elementary, middle and high school.
Garza said that any plans to alter class size would go hand-in-hand with a discussion of a mandated cap to the number of students in any one class, protecting county schools that already are struggling with larger class sizes.
While the state currently has mandates that cap elementary school class sizes at 29-35 students per teacher depending on grade, the county currently has no such hard-and-fast rules.
“We need to give parents in our communities assurances that just because we are raising the cap, it won’t affect those that have been most egregiously affected in the past,” Garza said.
According to Adams, a cap would allay some worries over larger class sizes, but an increase still would impact the classroom environment for students and teachers.
“You would still have teachers right near the limit whose class sizes could increase,” Adams said. “A cap prevents some problems of a class size increase, but not all of them.”