As negotiators hammer out their union contract, Palo Alto teachers Tuesday night called for an end to a four-year trend of increasing class sizes.
Raising the specter of elementary classes with as many as 30 students, teachers told the Board of Education they could not possibly offer the level of individual attention or inclusion of special needs students with 30 that they can with a class of 20.
"By considering larger class sizes, we're quickly sliding down a slippery slope," said Britt Brown, a fourth-grade teacher at Nixon Elementary School.
Average class size in Palo Alto elementary schools has gone from 19.9 in 2007-08 to 22.2 this fall as schools have grappled with budget constraints, and state financial incentives for class size reduction have dried up.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said rumors that elementary class sizes are headed for 27 to 29 "are not accurate. But we understand how this misrepresentation has been created and we're working on correcting that."
Current class sizes "are at the edge of board and staff comfort levels," Skelly said.
The board quietly dropped a policy numerically limiting class size about two years ago, and the issue remains an open item in the school district's current negotiations with the Palo Alto Educators Association, the union representing teachers.
"We've been struggling with policies and language in our collective bargaining agreement around class size," Skelly said.
Palo Alto Educators Association President Triona Gogarty said elementary class sizes were 27 or 28 students in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that teachers were supported by paid classroom aides at that time.
Teachers' aide hours were cut back as class sizes fell in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Gogarty said.
This fall, some elementary classrooms across the district have 23 to 25 students and some high school calculus classes have enrollments of 32 or 33, Gogarty said.
"In these economic times, we know we don't have 20 to 1 anymore," but teachers need more support if class sizes continue to rise, she said.
Gogarty waved a stack of 120 high school essays that had been corrected with detailed comments from the teacher. At 15 minutes per essay, the corrections and comments represent about 30 hours of work for the teacher, she said.
A Gunn English teacher said typical English class sizes are 23 to 25 for freshmen and sophomores, and 28 to 32 for juniors and seniors.
Gunn math teacher Rachel Grunsky asked for more specific data on high school class sizes.
"At the secondary level, it's a vague teacher-classroom ratio that doesn't give you a picture of each department," Grunsky said.
Grunsky said she has 35 students in her AP calculus class and was asked whether she could take one more.
"I said, 'Sure, but can you tell me where to put the desk, because I don't know where to put it,'" she told the board.
The teachers spoke during the board's "open forum" agenda, under which board members are not permitted to respond.
However, earlier in the meeting Skelly spoke of budget constraints that have led to class size increases in recent years.
As a district funded under the "basic aid" formula that relies heavily on property tax, Palo Alto does not get revenue based on enrollment.
Enrollment growth has led to a revenue reduction of $919 per Palo Alto student in the past three years, he said.
"Something has to give, and modest class size increases have to be part of our response, and they have been."
In other business Tuesday, the board approved a tentative $8.5 million deal to purchase 2.6 acres at 525 San Antonio Road, the site of the Peninsula Day Care Center, which closed in June.
"This is a big deal," Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said. "It's been a long time since the Palo Alto Unified School District moved forward on acquiring any property, so this is big news."
The property backs up to Greendell School, which is currently used by the school district for preschool and adult education activities. Greendell is contiguous with Cubberley Community Center.
School officials have yet to articulate their plans for the day care or Cubberley properties, but have agreed to enter into discussions with the City Council this fall about the future of Cubberley.
Fast-rising enrollment, particularly in the younger grades in the southern part of town, has officials scrambling for space and worrying about long-term planning should the trend continue.
Also Tuesday, the board was told about a plan to correct an error on the recently mailed property tax bills that came at the expense of $230,000 to the school district.
The tax bills failed to include a $12-per-parcel charge to property owners that represents the escalator clause of a parcel tax approved by voters in 2010.
Rather than going back to property owners immediately for the additional $12, the school district and Santa Clara County tax collector's office have agreed to add the charge as a separate item on the 2012-13 property tax bill, the school district's Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak said.