At its Feb. 8 board meeting the District 97 Board of Education discussed the need to make extensive budget reductions which included cuts in classroom teachers. Parents and taxpayers aware of these proposed cuts sent numerous e-mails and letters, and it was clear that board members had thoughtfully considered their concerns. Dist. 97 must trim approximately $640K from the education fund budget, and eliminating three classroom teachers is estimated to save approximately $240K. The board argued that its decision to cut classroom teachers rather than other program-related cuts is based on the district’s policy requiring a student/teacher ratio of 19.5-21 students. The three schools targeted for cuts?#34;Hatch, Irving and Longfellow?#34;each have student/teacher ratios slightly below this range.
For several reasons I believe this policy is flawed and the wrong way to balance the budget.
First, student/teacher ratios are fluid numbers that vary during the year because the student population fluctuates. Permissive transfers between Dist. 97 schools and transfers in and out of the district can significantly alter student enrollment during any given school year. These fluctuations have ranged from 10 to 20 students at Irving. As pointed out by several board members, the addition of just three students at Longfellow, and just five students at Irving will result in these schools being within the required student/teacher ratio. As a result, depending on when the ratio is measured, these schools may meet the required student/teacher ratio next school year. Indeed, what happens should the board decide to cut these classroom teachers and next year the schools meet or even exceed the student/teacher ratio? Will a teacher be added mid-year?
Second, the elimination of a classroom teacher will force schools to create multi-age classrooms. As stated above, no school currently has such small class sizes that the students in the eliminated classroom can be easily spread out among existing classes and not exceed 21 students per classroom. Instead, schools are forced to create multi-age classes generally made up of 50 percent from one grade and 50percent from another. Teachers of multi-age classes will spread a curriculum over two years so students are required to remain in the class for both years.
Multi-age instruction is a teaching philosophy and not a budget-cutting tool. It requires a long-term commitment from administrators, teachers and parents, extensive teacher planning and training, and stability in the students being taught. It should not be implemented haphazardly, temporarily or for the sole reason of reducing the budget.
A better method for evaluating the number of teachers would be to increase the target range and use ratios from each school that were averaged over 3-5 years in order to eliminate year-to-year fluctuations. Similarly, if the Dist. 97 teaching philosophy is now to embrace multi-age classrooms, then it also must make a commitment to teacher training and converting homerooms to this teaching method?#34;not in response to budget cuts, but in a controlled and planned way.
Finally, several members of the Dist. 97 board said at the Feb. 8 meeting that classroom teachers must be cut in order to balance the budget. This is wrong. As [Peter] Barber rightfully pointed out during the meeting, in a budget as large as Dist. 97’s, it should be possible to find the $240k to save the teachers. Draconian cuts in administration and non-core teaching should be considered before cutting a classroom teacher.
Many members of our Oak Park community, I’m sure, have experienced severe cuts at their jobs, including cuts in administrative staff, in supplies, and in consultants. Several members of the board indicated at the meeting that such cuts could not be made. I would respectfully disagree and would side with Mr. Barber, who insisted that when there is the will, there is the way and that cuts could be found. Yes, dramatic cuts in administrative support services would place extra burdens on our administrators, but this has become common practice in industry, so why not in Dist. 97?
In my job we (including our division director) now must put through our own purchase orders, schedule our own travel, and take care of mail services ourselves because our secretarial staff has been severely cut back. However, this is seen as a small price to pay in order to preserve our ability to deliver our core mission. Similarly, while I would not want to see funding for after-school programs such as athletic teams, CAST, or BRAVO reduced, I would prefer this to losing a classroom teacher, which represents Dist. 97’s core mission.
Dist. 97 should work hard and think of creative ways to save the $240k that the teacher cuts represent even if this means cuts in administration and programs that do not address the core classroom educational mission of Dist. 97.