Sorry Sheriff, But I Disagree

Followers of local blogs in PWC are familiar with the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Like many, I’m a huge fan of the Sheriff.  I’m jealous of his vocabulary, contacts, and his witty writing style.  I’m so boring I put myself to sleep!

The Sheriff recently posted an article that appears to imply that the class size issue in this county could be resolved simply by readjusting school boundaries.  He questioned the school division’s much maligned $15 million per pupil per school figure for reducing class sizes (see here ===>Does Class Size Reduction Really Cost $15 Million Per Student? The Short Answer: NO — That is a Lie!).

It pains me to say this, Sheriff, but I disagree.


Yes, there is an imbalance in enrollment for schools in our county.  The imbalance at the high school level is largely the result of transfers.  PWCS allows students to transfer to a different school than the one they’ll go to based on where they live.  The transfers are for specialty programs, like bio-chem or IT, and different specialty programs are offered at high schools throughout the county.  Currently about 3,600 PWCS high school students transfer from their base school to a different school (more than 900 per grade from 9th to 12th grades).

Every school has students that transfer out and transfer in, but some schools have a greater number of transfers than others.  Forest Park, Hylton, and OP are overcrowded and the overcrowding is primarily the result of transfers from Gar-field, Potomac, and Freedom. Gar-field, Potomac, and Freedom are below capacity largely because of high transfers out.  The 12th high school is supposed to relieve overcrowding at OP, Forest Park, and Hylton, overcrowding that is largely the result of transfers.

At the high school level there may need to be some adjustment to better balance enrollment, but that adjustment will mean eliminating a program that over 3600 students take advantage of every year.

So, I agree with the Sheriff that boundaries may need to be adjusted to better balance enrollment in the schools in our county, but I’m not sure parents of children who transfer schools would agree that ending transfers is in the best interests of their children.

While transfers are an issue that needs to be addressed, they aren’t the driver behind class sizes.  Class sizes are set based on the state mandates, whether the school participates in title 1 or the state class size reduction grant, and enrollment.  At the high school level you can add in student interest in classes as well.

Class Sizes – Elementary Level 

At the elementary level the limits are based on state mandates for division-wide averages and class size maximums, and enrollment at each school.

The state mandates vary by grade level, and are rather complicated (see here).  For 1st – 3rd grades no one class can exceed 30 students and the a division-wide average must be of 24 students per teacher.  For 4th – 6th grades no one class can be larger than 35 students and the division-wide average must be 25 students per teacher.  For kindergarten no class can be larger than 29 students, a full time aide must be provided when there are more than 24 students in a class, and the division-wide average must the 29 students per teacher.

Both title 1 and the class size reduction grant set caps on the size of kindergarten – third grade classes in schools participating in them (participation depends on the percentage of economically disadvantaged children in the school).  The caps vary based on the percentage of economically disadvantaged students enrolled in the school, but the caps range from 19 to 24 students per teacher.

The number of teachers allocated to each elementary school depends on whether they’re participating in the grants and their enrollment, though there is some flexibility because the number of students at a school in every grade level isn’t always in a direct liner relationship to the caps.

Adding more classroom space at the elementary level won’t reduce class sizes unless you add more teachers.  You can only add more teachers if the school division hires more and assigns them to that school.  Since the school division has set class sizes at the statewide legal maximum, that means adding another classroom doesn’t mean you get another teacher.  Yes, we have empty classrooms in elementary schools with 28 students in a class – or, to be more specific, we have classrooms that aren’t being used as classrooms in elementary schools with 28 students in a class.

Class Sizes – Middle and High School

At the high school and middle school level the state mandate is based on student / teacher contacts per day and is significantly more complicated.  The number of student / teacher contacts per day is 150 in any 6 period instructional day (with one period, or 1/6, of that day dedicated to planning). That translates to an average of 30 kids per class in a traditional 6 period day, with one period as a planning period.  Unfortunately, few of our high schools and middle schools follow a traditional 6 period schedule. Most follow a block schedule and some follow a modified block schedule.  The state mandates increase student / teacher contacts with block scheduling.

The allocation of teachers at the high school and middle school level is based on the state mandates, courses kids are taking, and enrollment, not the school’s capacity.

At schools that are below capacity there are empty classrooms. Potomac high school is below capacity. They recently added a bunch of new classrooms when the new addition opened, but enrollment and transfers out still had them below capacity. They didn’t hire teachers to fill every classroom and have smaller class sizes.  They actually ended up reducing their staff numbers and have classrooms that aren’t being used as classrooms.

Another example is Marsteller Middle School. Marsteller middle school is above capacity. The K – 8 will open next fall and will reduce their enrollment, though they’ll still be overcapacity. Last year about 80 students decided to stay at Nokesville for their 6th grade year rather than move to Marsteller and then move back to the K – 8 the following year. With 80 fewer students the thought had been that class sizes would come down.  Nope. Because enrollment decreased, Marsteller lost funding for instructional staff.  They have fewer teachers this year than they did last year, even though they are still nearly 20% overcapacity.

The only time capacity comes into play is when a school is literally out of space – not just space in the building but space that can be used as classrooms in the building AND trailers.  Schools in our county have literally run out of space that can be used as classrooms in schools and run our of space to add more trailers.

The number of teachers at a school is a function of the number of kids at that school and state mandates, not the capacity of the school. Adjusting boundaries and eliminating transfers won’t change that.

$15 Million Figure

As for the $15 million, I have been told that it is largely staff costs plus some additional on-site coaches.

PWCS has 11 high school and 16 middle schools. If you add one teacher to each grade level at each high school and middle school in the county, you’ve added 92 teachers. At a cost of $81,480 per teacher for salaries and benefits, and that’s an entry-level teacher, that’s $7.5 million.

We have 57 elementary schools and two K-8 schools, so 59 “elementary” schools. Some of those schools have smaller k – 2 classes because of the state and federal grants. If you add 90 new elementary school teachers, which is about two more teachers to half the schools and 1 more teacher to the other half, that’s 90 new teachers. At a cost of $81,480 per teacher for salaries and benefits, that’s $7.3 million.

That gives us a grand total of $14.8 million – just for salaries and benefits.

I don’t know if this is what PWCS had in mind with their $15 million figure, but it shows that $15 million isn’t an unreasonable figure.

The problem comes with how far it goes.

Patriot high school currently has 2,614 student enrolled.  The school is overcapacity and has one 10 room modular trailer installed in the back of the school on the driver’s ed course.  Patriot currently has 20 english teachers, 19 math teachers, 18 science teachers, and 23 social studies teachers. Just based on averages, that’s 33 kids per english class, 34 kids per math class, 36 kids per science class, and 28 kids per social studies class. Not every kid takes math and science every year, so the actual numbers are likely different.

What this shows, is that bringing class sizes down isn’t as easy as just adding one teacher because one teacher, at least at the middle and high school level, is only one subject.

If you want to bring every core academic class down to 28,  you have to add about 12 teachers.  At $81,480 a teacher, that’s about $978,000 for Patriot high school. If we assume that the situation is similar at every high school and middle school in the county, then adding 12 teachers to every high school and middle school in the county at $978,000 per school will run you $26.4 million. And that’s just salaries and benefits for those teachers.

Elementary schools are harder because of the title 1 / state grant affecting K – 2 classes. With 59 elementary schools (including Porter and Pennington), if you hire 3 teachers per school,  that’s $14.4 million.

That brings the total, just for teachers and just for salaries and benefits for them, to $40.8 million.

The problem with all of this is that there isn’t a target included. I don’t know if 3 teachers to each school would be enough, or if some schools would need 5.  I don’t know what target we’re aiming to hit.  It’s easy to say $15 million for one student, but where does the $15 million end?

We Need a Plan, Not a Slogan

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it a million more times, I think we need a target and a detailed plan for meeting that target.  It would be a lot easier to trust and believe that class sizes would be reduced if there was a plan – one that set a goal, identified which schools varied from that goal, provided a plan for each school to reach that goal that included classroom teachers and trailers, where needed.  Such a plan would have to be updated every year as enrollment changes.

Without a target to hit, it’s impossible to plan.  Without a plan, it’s impossible to believe that promised reductions will be delivered.

Trust, and a lack of it, is really what it boils down to.  The BOCS and public don’t trust the school division to deliver on their promises to reduce class sizes.  With the misplaced priorities the school board has recently approved, it’s not difficult to understand why that mistrust has developed.

The school division and school board have steadfastly refused to provide targeted class sizes or a plan for reaching those targets.  They feel like the problem is so big that the BOCS and county taxpayers will never agree to fully fund it, so why bother developing the plan.

I think a plan would help.  At least if there is a plan the public will know where they money ought to go.  Otherwise it’s hopeless, and our kids deserve better than hopeless.


One Response to “Sorry Sheriff, But I Disagree”

  1. sd Says:

    The $80K figure is not for a first year teacher. It is the average for a teacher; a school budgets for every teacher at $80K, whether they are first year or 30 year.. Trust me…after 15 years of teaching in the county with a master’s degree, I just reached $60K…I would love the payscale you imply where a first year teacher receives $80 in compensation.

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