At a town hall meeting on the Palo Alto school district’s budget shortfall on Sept. 15, Superintendent Max McGee made a commitment: to maintain all high-school core classes at or below their current sizes for the next school year.
This year, 11 percent of core classes have more than 32 students in them.
What would it cost the district to keep that commitment?
$2.89 million -- the cost to hire 22 additional teachers, according to an analysis conducted by two district parents. (The average cost of one full-time teacher is $131,647, according to the district, which includes salary and benefits.)
Even parents Sally Kadifa's and Rita Tetzlaff’s more conservative projection — 16 additional teachers to keep all but 13 percent of core classes under 32 students — comes with a hefty price tag of $2.1 million. This would help to accommodate the largest freshman class the high schools have seen in recent history that will arrive next year.
And the artificial cut-off of 32 students appears to be the new normal, despite the fact that the teacher’s contract requires most secondary classes to have an average of 28.5 students.
Given the district is currently searching for cuts throughout the budget to mitigate a $4.2 million shortfall, this investment will be a difficult one to make and require hard tradeoffs by the five school board members.
With the election looming and three seats set to be filled, the Palo Alto Weekly spoke with the five candidates running for school board about their perspective on class size, and the implications of these parents' projections for students, teachers — and the district budget.
All candidates agree that the district needs to invest in more teachers to keep class sizes down. Unsurprisingly, they all say that faced with the decision of putting money toward high-school class size and something else, they would cut as far away from the classroom as possible.
"I think anyone who is involved in the school board knows full well you cannot cut $4 million from this operating budget and not get close to the classroom," said candidate Jennifer DiBrienza, who has said publicly several times that she sees budgets as "moral documents" that reflect the district’s priorities.
"We decide what our priorities and we budget based on those priorities. … that (class size) should certainly be one of our top priorities," she said.
Incumbent Melissa Baten Caswell said she would look first for savings in support positions and other additions that have been made over the last several years that may no longer be necessary. Baten Caswell pointed to the district’s teachers on special assignment (TOSAs), part-time positions with a particular focus, such as education technology or school climate. The TOSAs provide coaching and other support to teachers in the classroom.
The program has grown over the last few years. While the program has been impactful, it might not be “critical” to have as many TOSAs as the district currently does, Baten Caswell said. But decisions like this one must be informed by ample community input, she said.
"This is when we have to go to the community and say, 'What tradeoffs are you willing to make?'" Baten Caswell said.
Candidate Jay Cabrera, too, is a proponent of "participatory budgeting," and places high emphasis on community involvement -- soliciting input from all community members, not just staff, administrators and the board, he said.
Emberling and DiBrienza said they both would look to $13 million in program additions the district has made over the last four years for cuts. They also, along with Cabrera and candidate Todd Collins, would also prioritize further trimming administrative costs at the district office to make room for class-size dollars. (The board has approved $612,000 in reductions at the district office in this year’s budget, and staff have proposed cutting an additional $862,500 next year, mostly in personnel.)
DiBrienza cautioned, however, that "if you completely eviscerate 25 Churchill, we are 17 islands. It's not a unified school district."
"When we get caught up in this 'We're too top-heavy, and cut, cut, cut,' at some point pretty quickly you get impact in classrooms," the former teacher added. "Whether you’re actually at the school site or not, it impacts classrooms and how they function and the kind of professional development we’re offering and the kind of services we’re offering."
Kadifa and Tetzlaff's analysis focused on core classes, so they did not look at the impact on popular electives like theater, computer science or journalism. Emberling said she would like the schools to have conversations about how big is too big for these classes (some of which are typically much larger than a core class) and relay that to the board to know which electives might also need to be targeted.
Cabrera has said the district should bring class sizes far down -- to below 20 students -- though he has offered no substantial plan for how to do that beyond hiring more teachers. He also supports "university-style education" with a large lecture that breaks up into small sections of 10 to 15 students.
Collins, an investment manager who has made the district’s deficit the focus of his campaign, said he has taken to telling voters that the shortfall is actually $5 million-plus, if the district wants to meet its class-size commitments. He noted that these commitments go beyond just numbers to highly prioritized issues like student-teacher connectedness and teacher retention and recruitment.
Class size is "not just about academic performance and not even primarily about academic performance," Collins said. "It's about the kind of environment that we provide in our schools."
The school board decided in October to hold a special study session focused on class size this fall. It has not yet been scheduled.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of the school-board election. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.