Sunday, October 31, 2004

Schools hope to keep gains while cutting staff

Cincinnati's dilemma: Budget overspent

By Jennifer Mrozowski
Enquirer staff writer

When Cincinnati Public Schools campaigned for an operating levy four years ago, officials promised voters they would hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and boost student achievement.

They kept that promise. Since 2000, 200 teachers have been added and academic gains have been made.

But those hires now pose a serious financial threat to the district. During the past four years, enrollment has plummeted, tax revenues are down and longtime teachers are getting negotiated raises that put additional strain on the budget.

Now school officials say that even if a $65 million-a-year levy renewal passes Tuesday, hundreds of teachers must be cut in the next few years.

"We are going to right-size the district," Superintendent Alton Frailey said. "That is going to happen regardless of the vote on Nov. 2."

The teaching staff typically accounts for any district's largest single budget item. It also can be the most difficult area to trim. While everyone wants good teachers and small classes, some now question whether the district can support a 13-to-1 student-teacher ratio - including all teaching staff, not just regular classroom instructors.

Cincinnati isn't alone in its struggle to balance its staff with enrollment. Middletown, Sycamore and Covington districts have wrestled with similar problems.

But the problem is especially sensitive here, because district leaders want to continue making academic gains.

Vanessa White, a North Avondale parent and a volunteer on the district's budget task force, doesn't want to see the district increase class size because she believes smaller classes help raise achievement.

"We're making academic progress - even if it's a little at a time," she said. "To have to go backward, I'm very concerned." The district this year reached "academic watch," the second-lowest category, after years of being mired in "academic emergency."

To some, smaller is better

Cincinnati school administrators and some board members acknowledge the district has too many teachers, but they say budgeting and staffing are harder than ever because enrollment is increasingly difficult to predict.

Factors include growing competition from charter schools and a declining city birth rate. Enrollment shifts have caused the district to lose tens of millions of dollars in state funding.

Since 2000, enrollment dropped by nearly 4,000 students - about 9 percent - to about 38,800, but the total teaching staff increased by about 7 percent.

Some argue the increase in staff, especially in early grades, has made a difference.

Tiffany Barnes, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Mount Washington Elementary School, has been with the district about a decade and remembers having classes of 32 students. Now her classes have 22 and 23 students.

"You get to know the students better," Barnes said. "You can identify their strengths and weaknesses and pick up the students who are falling behind."

Steffanie Volk, a first-grade teacher at Rothenberg/Vine Elementary School, has 18 students this year. She said that's a big change from before the 2000 levy, when her classes had up to 25 students. With bigger classes, she said she spent too much time on discipline and issues unrelated to learning.

"A lot more instruction takes place" in the smaller classes, she said. "(Larger classes) shouldn't have a big impact but they do, because you're dealing with so many issues. It diverts your attention."

The bottom line

But keeping the promise to voters has proven expensive.

Teacher salaries and benefits made up 52 percent of the district's $437 million budget last year. The district overspent the budget by $22 million, and Treasurer Michael Geoghegan said $40 million should be lopped off the next budget. That means cutting hundreds of staff - many of them teachers.

And if voters reject the district's five-year renewal levy on Tuesday, another $32.5 million in cuts will be needed for 2005-06.

Last school year, Cincinnati had 3,095 teaching staff for its 38,800 students. That equals a student-to-teacher ratio of roughly 13 to 1.

Comparisons with other school systems are problematic because districts count their instructional personnel differently.

The Ohio Department of Education uses a complicated formula to determine student-teacher ratios. It reports Cincinnati's as about 17 to 1 - 12th-lowest among the 49 districts in Southwest Ohio, and the lowest among the six big urban districts. By comparison, Cleveland's is 22 to 1, Toledo's is about 20 to 1 and Columbus' is 18 to 1, the state says.

But when all teaching staff is counted - including counselors, librarians, small-group tutors, teacher evaluators and other non-classroom teachers - Cincinnati's ratio falls to about 13 to 1.

Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said non-classroom teachers improve the quality of teaching.

She pointed to the improvement on the state report card. The graduation rate is up and the district met the student attendance requirement last year for the first time since the state began tracking it, she said. She added that staffing levels are bound to be high in Cincinnati, where nearly two-thirds of students live in poverty and 17 percent have disabilities.

But Taylor, along with Geoghegan and Frailey, agreed that staffing levels must fall in line with enrollment.

"We could be an excellent-rated school district and still have to (make cuts)," Geoghegan said.

Reluctance to reduce

Frailey said he was alarmed at the size of Cincinnati Public's budget almost from the time he arrived here in 2002. But he said he was discouraged from considering staff cuts.

"When I got here nobody was talking about cutting the budget or cutting staff," Frailey said. "When I arrived and began asking questions, it was always, 'We have the (bond) levy coming up so you can't do anything right now,' and then it was, 'We're in negotiations so you can't do anything right now.' "

He wouldn't specify who discouraged him.

Instead, he said he capped the district's 2003-04 budget at the level it was the previous year to stem increasing costs. Still, the district overspent that. Officials blamed unforeseen lead-abatement costs, and increasing payments the district must make to charter schools and other outside agencies that educate district students.

But they also cited raises negotiated this spring into the teachers' union contract. Teachers received raises of 3.2 percent retroactive to January. Cincinnati last year had one of the highest average teacher salaries in the state at $55,372, ranking 28th of more than 600 school districts.

Representatives of the board and union negotiated an additional 3 percent raise for teachers at the top of the pay scale. The cost is estimated at $900,000 in the first year. Union officials say the raises help retain experienced teachers.

A buyout proposal for senior-level teachers was considered in the recent contract talks but ultimately was dropped. Frailey is now reconsidering the concept.

Board member Rick Williams said other provisions of the teachers' contract - such as mandated class size limits - also make it difficult to reduce staff.

Delicate balance

Perhaps the toughest challenge is making cuts that won't compromise the district's academic progress.

The research is clear that smaller classes, particularly for poor and minority students, have a positive effect on achievement and graduation rates, said Jeremy Finn, education professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Finding an ideal class size is difficult, but much of the research points to achievement improvements when class sizes in primary grades are 17 or lower.

"Everybody becomes better behaved, more involved in learning, more engaged in learning, and there's more time on task and less disruptive behavior," Finn said.

Finn said some school districts have reduced class size and improved student achievement without increasing their budgets by moving non-classroom teachers into the classroom full time.

Cincinnati school officials haven't decided how they'll juggle staff and bring spending under control. For now, they have focused on getting Tuesday's levy renewal passed.

Mike McCarthy, whose four children attend Fairview German Language School, hopes that however the cuts shake out, they won't stall the district's progress.

"We have to right-size the district, but don't cut the agreements we made to taxpayers last time," he said.



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