The Atlanta school board couldn’t agree Monday on whether to reduce class sizes and canceled a scheduled vote on a budget that’s still $61 million short of being balanced just 10 days before they must give it initial approval.
Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel proposed keeping class sizes at current levels, which in some cases are larger than Georgia guidelines. But board members Nancy Meister and Cecily Harsch-Kinnane said the school district should explore spending money to shrink classes, especially in schools where they’re especially oversized.
Superintendent Erroll Davis told the board it wasn’t practical to spend some $20 million to get class sizes in line with state standards. State law says that class sizes shouldn’t exceed 32 students in public high schools (fewer in lower grade levels), but the state Board of Education has waived those requirements over the last few years as school districts struggled with financial difficulties.
“I think the max (class size limit) is there for a reason. I would like to challenge the administration about how we could do that next year,” Meister said. “How can you get us there? Is there a way?”
Davis responded that he didn’t see how to spend that kind of money within the current budget, which already includes proposals for three furlough days and an elimination of a planned 3 percent bonus to employees who haven’t received a raise in five years.
“It’s not there to spend. There is no way,” Davis said.
The Atlanta school board is trying to pass a $568 million budget by a May 30 deadline for preliminary approval. A final vote would be taken early in June. The board planned several meetings for next week to try and resolve differences.
The superintendent has recommended closing the budget shortfall by spending $20 million from reserve funds, saving $9.6 million that would have been paid in one-time bonuses and gaining $4.5 million through furloughs on non-instructional days. Additional cuts may include program reductions and letting vacant positions go unfilled for months.
“Everybody agrees that smaller class sizes are better. That’s not in dispute,” said Tom Tidwell, who has two children attending Brandon Elementary. “The question is how to get there. It may not be what Davis wants, but there are ways to get there.”
It would cost about $24 million to reduce class sizes by five students, and about $5 million to reduce class sizes by one student in the 50,000-student district, according to Atlanta Public Schools figures.
“We’re not comfortable with where some classes are now,” Harsch-Kinnane said. “Should we make a statement about what is not an acceptable class size?”