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.