At the Dec. 8 meeting of the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education, the president of the teachers’ union implored school board members to hire more teachers.
Wendy Cassens, an English teacher at RBHS, told the school board during the public comment period of the meeting that large class sizes are hurting the school academically and in other ways.
“One of our primary concerns has been the decrease in the quality of relationships with our students due to higher class sizes and caseloads,” Cassens told the school board.
Cassens was applauded by about a dozen teachers in the audience after finishing her remarks.
In a handout given to each board member, Cassens indicated that the average class size of 24 at RBHS was higher than at 11 other comparable west suburban high schools. The average RBHS counselor caseload of 323 students was also higher than that at any of the other 11 high schools.
“RB has the largest class sizes of any of the surrounding schools, and this has had a detrimental effect on our students’ academic success,” Cassens told the school board.
Cassens said that in 2011, RBHS had an enrollment of 1,300 students with a faculty of 110.8 full-time equivalent teaching positions. Next year, according to current plans and projections, RBHS will have an enrollment of 1,630 students and 100 teaching positions, an increase of nearly three teaching positions from this year.
“The student population has increased by 25 percent, yet the number of teachers has decreased by over 10 percent,” Cassens said.
Cassens pointed to the results of a recent practice ACT exam taken by RBHS juniors as indicative of a downward academic trend at RBHS. According to Cassens, the cumulative score on the ACT practice test was 20.5. That was more than a full point lower than the current senior class’ composite score of 21.8 on the 2015 ACT.
“The Board of Education has an ACT score of 26 as a district goal,” Cassens said. “The board set this goal in part as a measure of our students’ academic readiness for college.
“The results are not the same. They are less. Our students deserve better. This community deserves better.”
Cassens said she was addressing the school board because District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis told teachers at a recent institute day that that the school board would not fund more than 100 teaching positions next year.
Teachers have been complaining about higher class sizes and the effect on education ever since the defeat of a tax increase referendum in 2011.
“We have been voicing such concerns over the past four years to the administration, but it seems that little have been done to address them,” Cassens told the board.
After the meeting, school board President Mike Welch noted that the contract with the teachers expires at the end of the 2015-16 school year, and that the board is willing to discuss adding more teachers. However, he challenged the union to come up with ways to pay for new teachers.
“Negotiations are right around the corner,” Welch said. “If the RBEA wants to hire more teachers and lower class size, then they need to present how to help the board achieve this goal. I would welcome that discussion. However, emptying the savings account is not the responsible course of action.”
In her remarks, Cassens said that the district’s educational fund has a surplus of 46 percent of annual expenditures. But the board’s challenge is that operating costs, especially salary and benefits, are increasing at a faster rate than revenues.
Before Cassens spoke, the district’s outside financial advisor told the school board that he projected salary and benefit costs to increase at a rate of 4.5 percent per year, largely because health insurance costs are projected to increase at a rate of about 7 percent per year.
Property tax revenue, which largely funds the district, can increase by little more than the rate of inflation due to property tax cap laws, absent a referendum. And the financial advisor also told the board that he expects the state legislature to pass some type of temporary property tax freeze law in the not too distant future.
The advisor projected that RBHS could face an operating deficit of $340,000 by fiscal year 2017 and a deficit of nearly $2.7 million by 2021.