Bigger classes, fewer teachers, higher pay?

kindergarten class at Melrose Leadership Academy
Tribune file photo by Laura A. Oda

That seemed to be the thinking of the Oakland school district’s administration, at least during a special budget meeting in which the school board began to figure out how to reconcile its priorities with a $27 million budget cut (which equals more than 10 percent of the district’s general purpose funds).

Using an interactive Excel spreadsheet — which is supposed to be made available to the public soon — CFO Vernon Hal plugged in various average class sizes and teacher costs and, boom! Out came the number of students that school would need, overall, to cover its fixed costs (principal, clerk, utilities, etc.), and vice versa.

Increasing the district’s average class size by just one student would save almost $4 million, Hal said. Average class size is 21 for Oakland’s elementary schools and 26 for its middle and high schools, according to the presentation.

The takeaway message? Schools generally can afford to be smaller and pay their teachers a higher salary if their class sizes are bigger, since there would be fewer teachers on the payroll.

I should note that Hal didn’t promise any pay raises, and there’s no telling if they would follow such a policy move.

Of course, reality is not so neat as manipulating numbers on a spreadsheet. Staff acknowledged that larger class sizes would probably lead to layoffs, even when the district’s 14 percent teacher attrition rate is taken into account.

Layoffs and staff consolidations typically involve “bumping,” a provision in the collective bargaining agreement in which one teacher takes the spot of another, largely based on seniority. The teachers union, which is negotiating a new contract, has listed small class size as a top priority and has rejected such proposals in the past.

If district administrators decide this is the way to go, they will face a technical and philosophical challenge as well: how to implement such a change in its largely decentralized, school-based budgeting system.

I can already hear you saying that this is a false choice, but given the budget situation, it might be one which district officials will be making: Should OUSD shrink the size of its teaching corps to make ends meet (and, potentially, to pay the remaining teachers better)?

Superintendent Tony Smith says he wants to hear from the public. “There’s no way that we, just district folks, that we, as a board … can come up with the one best way to make all of these cuts,” he said.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Steven Weinberg

    I see a number of problems with the idea of balancing the budget by increasing class sizes:
    1. The district is only providing enough GP funds this year to meet the OEA contract obligations for class size, for example 32 in middle school classes. If the district average class size is 26 it is because special purpose funds: Title One, English Language Learner, Quality Education Investment Act, etc. have been used at schools to reduce those sizes. QEIA funds will be lost if class size targets (about 20 to 25 students per class) are not met at those schools. Title One and ELD funds are only spent with the approval of the School Site Councils, so the district cannot decide how that money will be used. To increase class sizes by one student, many classes will be increased to 33, 34, or 35 students.
    2. Class size reduction does result in better education and higher scores for students. Oakland has 4 middle schools in the QEIA program, which provides funds to reduce class size: Claremont, Madison, Frick, and Urban Promise. Those are exactly the same middle schools that made the greatest increase in API this year. Increasing class sizes will hurt student achievement. The average API gain for those schools was 54 points. The other district middle schools averaged a loss of one point. (West Oakland Middle was not included in these calculations because it was not large enough in 2008 to have a valid API for comparative purposes.)
    3. Increasing class size by one or two students may work easily on an Excel spreadsheet, but it is much more complicated at the school site. My former school had 5 sections of English in 7th grade for the last several years. If we eliminated one section of 30, the other 4 sections would have to increase to 37 or 38 students. Some classes are only open to certain students, English Language Development classes, for example, and you cannot add students to those classes just because it helps the school budget.
    4. When teachers are laid off, the ones with least experience and lowest salaries go first. Unless the district spreadsheet took that into account, the savings it projects will not be achieved. The more teachers that are laid off, the higher the average teacher salary goes, and the more teachers who must be laid off to reach the budget goal.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I’m just glad they are having a discussion. I think Weinberg (#1) makes good arguments. However, what I’m noticing all across the state and the nation: Something has got to give. In fact, in most places, a few somethings have to give. I don’t know what those things are, but I’m glad the Board is at least discussing options and not burying its head like I see in some quarters.

    I would also hope that we as a community do more than just shoot holes in ideas (which is important), but also come up with some of our own. The Board looks to have some hard choices to make and we should be giving them guidance on what is most important and why.

    This time folks, the Truth will likely hurt.

  • Nextset

    The Calif State financial house of cards appears to be collapsing. The state budget cuts that are coming will likely reduce the public schools to a mere survival budget. This will mean large changes in class size, and probably fewer classes (ie cutting of school hrs and days, elimination of K, possible reduction of years of schooling (maybe grades 1-10 with no grades 11 & 12).

    If there is no money, there’s no money. Without a federal printing-press-money bailout this is where the numbers lead.

    Before this happens you will see waves of municipal bankruptcies. When they start to occur, watch where the oil spill runs. The municipal bankruptcies that are on the way are a precursor to a collapse government services including free public schooling.

    We are living the consequences of killing the tax base. You cannot legislate give aways from free health care at the ERs, endless unemployment “insurance”, endless welfare for single mothers, old age assistance for people who made inadequate provisions for themselves, and a civil court system that makes every slight and injury the fault of businesses that have other states and nations to go to.

    Will we miss the public schools – the way they are now? I won’t. New and different education will roll out. Internet based, phone company based, retail store based?? Who knows. Change is in the wind. I don’t know what we will have in ten to twenty years but the public schools in CA can’t go on like this. By the time the urban public schools actually close for good they will probably already have been replaced – at least for those who count. And what we will have will probably promote social immobility which seems to be what this nation is now about.

    The funny thing about all this is that we seem to be getting what we all wanted. Everybody happy getting it their way – with no common ground left.

    Creative Destruction. And Brave New World.

  • oak261

    Ask whether the overhead (fraction of the over $400 M/year budget that doesn’t go directly to the schools but pays for district level staff) is high compared to other districts. I estimated a while back that at least 30% of the overall budget doesn’t go directly to the schools. Anyone know different?

  • Steven Weinberg

    One way I would reduce district expenses would be to suspend district benchmark testing until the crisis is over. Teachers who found the tests valuable could continue to use past year’s tests and grade them on site, but the cost of consultants to prepare them, the cost of reproducing them and delivering them, and costs of generating reports would be eliminated.

  • Debora

    In elementary school, we really, really need the benchmark testing – at the very least through third grade. It seems to me that reading and math concepts must be mastered by third grade for future success without struggle.

    I agree that teachers, or even teacher’s aides can grade the tests – if elementary teachers grade the tests they can watch for classroom trends as they are grading.

    I agree with other testing that requires sending tests out and back however, it is a waste of time and money and tests as well as results are often misplaced.

  • Gordon Danning

    Nextext observes, “If there is no money, there’s no money.” That is very true, but it is also a very big “if.” There is plenty of money in the California economy; that money can be used to purchase government services (through payment of taxes) or to purchase consumer goods, or for a myriad of other things. For example, I buy a coffee and 2 bagels every morning on the way to school; at $3.85, that equuals $700.00 per year. If each of the 20 million taxpayers gave up their morning $3.85 coffee and bagels and devoted that sum to taxes, the state would get an extra $14 billion per year. Now, if the people of California choose to use their money for consumption rather than for government services, that is certainly their choice. But it IS a choice; let’s not pretend otherwise.

  • Nextset

    Gordon Danning: Do we even have 20 million CA taxpayers? Most of the people I see don’t pay (income) taxes. Their declared income is low enough to avoid some taxes. In CA Income taxes are paid by a fraction of the population. Some of that fraction are making plans to relocate. The retiring baby boomers are considering leaving. Regressive taxes such as sales taxes can also be avoided by simply moving to Portland. I know salesclerks (Best Buy) who are planning to leave CA next summer for OR. They will walk away from the house & mortgage and bankrupt in the process. They tell me that since their wages were cut 35% they cannot make a life in this state anymore.

    It’s not a matter of people giving up Starbucks and funding the public schools. People don’t want to fund the public schools – they hate the public schools. The civil servants I know don’t use the urban public schools. LA Unified is 6% white, and OUSD and Richmond Unified? Who wants to donate a used car to them, much less cash? Minorities? Please.. The charitable tendencies of minorities wouldn’t keep Rosa Parks well fed. Those who run charities know who gives and who doesn’t. If the public money dries up the public schools will collapse.

    Or as one school district has put it, Summer School is cancelled, you can take an online course. I think we are going to hear a lot more of this in the future only it won’t be the summer school classes they are canceling it will be all the college prep classes – which I’ll bet will be the first to go in favor of online secondary school education.

    We are about to face change in education. More change in the next 5 years than the previous 30.

    I don’t know if this is good or bad anymore, just unstoppable.

    Brave New World.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Mr. Danning (#7),

    I don’t often agree with Nextset, but on this we agree – The tax-paying public is not ready to spend more on public education the way it’s currently structured. They are holding on to their wallets/purses. If you said, give up your Starbucks and we’ll have low dropouts, equitable college graduation and a high growth economy, people simply wouldn’t believe you. We are now the boy that cried wolf.

    Change of the system is necessary along with a change in how California funds itself. But, right now. Reality is this state is broke and about to go bankrupt. Sure, they could reprioritize away from prisons. That would be a start, but it would not fix the fundamental problems that have been facing this state for at least a generation. Our booms are bigger and so are our busts. This is going to be one whale of a bust.

    Unemployment is at 12.5%. Only Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island are worse. Read that again until it sinks in. Then think of what unemployment in Oakland must be.

    Those three states together are about a third of California’s population. I don’t know much about the economy of Rhode Island, but the states are essentially one or two trick ponies when it comes to industries. California on the other hand is the worlds 7 or 8th largest economy. Why are we in the boat with them???

    We’re sending out IOUs, cutting salaries of politicians by 18%, raising college tuition (again) by 32% in one year. Our state workers are on furlough, our schools have taken a 20% cut over what they should have gotten from cost of living. While there may be wealth in California, it is not currently being managed by the state government. For that to change, the infamous 66 2/3rds rule will have to be addressed and along with it our willingness to spend beyond our means.

    I hope Nextset’s vision doesn’t come to pass, but at the rate we’re going, it’s becoming more plausible by the day.

  • oak261

    From http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/jtf/JTF_TaxBurdenJTF.pdf
    in 2006, the top 15% of california taxpayers “paid 84% of the state income tax.”
    Probably similar stats for 2008. Food for thought.

  • ex oakland staff

    That tax discrepancy should be no surprise or cause for concern when you have the biggest income gap between rich an poor since the 1920’s.
    Right now, the top 1% of Californians make 25% of the money, so of course they will be paying more of the taxes – it’s an INCOME tax and they have the INCOME!


  • Nextset

    Ex Oakland Staff – They (“The Rich”) may be moving and taking their income with them.

    You cannot income tax out of this socialist state financial crash. Socialism is incompatible with freedom, you cannot have both. You have to choose.

    There will be a collapse of state and local government here. It is already well underway. The municipalities will be unable to make payroll by the next fiscal year budget. There will be extreme/historic layoffs and budget/service cuts absent Obamanation printing press federal money – by June. And the death spiral will continue. Yes this state will raise all taxes. Yes this will continue to push the productive people out of CA to OR,NV, AZ and elsewhere (states with less generous welfare spending) – taking their businesses and professions with them.

    This doesn’t bode well for public schools. I predict big change in operations in the forseeable future.

  • Oak261

    Ex-Oakland staff:

    Thanks for posting the links. Interesting.

    I get the impression that you see a solution via taxation.

    From your 2nd link of post 11:
    “…Due to the state’s highly progressive income tax structure, the shifting distribution has helped cause state revenues to surge in the past five years, made state revenues more volatile, and raised the share of taxes paid by high-income Californians.”

    Regarding Figure 10, setting aside the volatility issue, how much MORE progressive do think the already very progressive tax schedule should be? Note that its one of the most progressive tax rate structures in the nation.

    Its reasonable that it is progressive, but what are the limits in that direction?

  • ex oakland staff

    I have no clue how to deal with the state budget, and I did not intend to propose a solution.
    I only pointed out that the percentage of taxes paid by the wealthy was reasonable considering their share of state income. If you are going to raise money with an income tax the wealthy are going to pay more in taxes than everyone else because they have the income. This is true even if you have a non-progressive flat tax, i.e. everyone pays 10%. Whatever you tax, whoever has more of that is going to pay more taxes.