The District 95 School Board voted to post a position for a new fifth grade teacher at S.E. Gross Middle School at its meeting last Thursday, in response to an emotional protest from parents over the possibility of the district eliminating one fifth grade classroom in 2005-06.
The new teacher would replace Conrad Stozek, a fifth-grade teacher who retired at the end of this school year. Superintendent Dr. Douglas Rudig had originally advised the board to not replace Stozek, given the small size of the incoming fifth grade class next year. According to estimates provided by S.E. Gross Principal Thomas Hurlburt, next year's class will be 98 students, in comparison to last year's class of 112.
Rudig's advice was also based on the fact that, due to the failed referendum in April, the district has been more focused on reducing costs than in previous years. Rudig estimated that the district could save about $60,000 in not hiring a new fifth grade teacher. He said he felt obligated to at least suggest these savings to the board.
"I certainly felt it would be remiss of me to bypass the discussion completely," he said.
The effect of not replacing Stozek would be to decrease the number of fifth grade sections offered at Gross from the traditional five to only four. Doing so would raise average class sizes from 20 to 25 students.
This change had been the main point of contention at the two previous school board meetings where the topic had been discussed, and on Thursday more than 25 parents, many of them with children about to enter the fifth grade, were on hand to voice their opposition to such an increase.
The parents, who not only made public comments but also interrupted the board members' discussion to ask questions and make points they thought the board members were neglecting, argued that bigger class sizes would reduce the quality of education their children received.
In a prepared statement, Patricia Hansa said bigger class sizes would be especially detrimental to fifth graders, who are entering a new school and may need more personal assistance from their teachers than students in higher grades. She also criticized the board for what she saw as a lack of communication between the administration and parents, and urged board members to consider a different means of trimming the budget.
"This type of decision-making makes me very uncomfortable," she said. "I encourage you and the school board to consider a different budget cut. The only acceptable solution is to hire a different teacher."
Amy West also supported the hiring of a new teacher, suggesting that the board should look at making cuts in administrative costs before making cuts in the classroom.
"It's shameful to cut a teacher," she said. "You're taking away from the child."
For most of the parents who spoke, the topic was obviously an emotional one. Hansa's voice shook as she read her statement to the board, and one mother broke down in tears as she described to the board how this decision would affect the district.
"You want to keep it small, you want to keep the scores up, you want people to stay," she said. "By upping the class sizes, especially in the fifth grade when everything is new, you're going to push people away."
Others supported the idea of eliminating the position, both in the audience and on the school board. Board President James Landahl argued that class size was not the only determinant in the quality of education; rather, it had more to do with the quality of the teacher. He also pointed out that some districts that performed just as well or better than District 95 on standardized tests had larger class sizes.
"Everyone's familiar with the theory that smaller class sizes lead to better scores," he said. "If that was the case, we'd have students outperforming other districts."
However, after the statements made by the parents, the overall stance of the board seemed to shift in favor of hiring a new teacher. Board Vice President John LaBarbera argued that, given the small overall dollar amount the district would be saving, the district's financial problems were not an adequate reason to eliminate a fifth-grade class.
"We're not talking about a larger percentage of the budget with respect to one teaching position," he said. "If that's the justification, then in my mind that's not a sufficient justification."
LaBarbera also made the point that the district would probably have to hire another fifth-grade teacher in just a few years anyway, to accommodate larger classes in the future. For example, according to estimates provided by Brook Park School Principal Dr. Claudia Newman, next year's second and third grade classes at Brook Park will be 111 and 104 students, respectively.
Board member Thomas Powers agreed with LaBarbera, saying it would not be fair to deny next year's fifth-graders the same educational resources as other students.
"Just because an opportunity has presented itself doesn't mean we should punish one class," he said.
Other board members agreed the best situation would be to have five sections of fifth grade, with smaller class sizes. Rudig also admitted that, were it not for the financial concerns in the district, he would have originally advised the board to rehire a fifth-grade teacher.
In the end, the board did vote to post the new position. The parents, who had waited through a three-hour meeting in order to hear the final decision, expressed relief.
"I'm thrilled they had the good insight to make this decision," Hansa said. "Everyone wins, especially the kids."