Fresno, Clovis school districts on economic upswing but face large class sizes

The Fresno BeeAugust 22, 2013 

First graders walk in single file toward their class at John Muir Elementary in Fresno Monday morning, the first day of school for both Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified school districts.


A review of California's 30 largest school districts shows two Valley districts are successfully digging out of the Great Recession, even as they contend with large class sizes and high numbers of impoverished students.

Fresno and Clovis Unified school districts are largely recovering after years of cuts, according to the report from EdSource, an online nonprofit education think tank. At the same time, they're getting a reprieve from budget slashing this school year under Proposition 30 and a new funding formula approved by state lawmakers.

"(We) anticipated the bad economic times," said Carol Mills, a Fresno Unified trustee. "You know it happens, so we had built up a reserve over several years."

The survey looked at factors such as class sizes, teacher layoffs, enrollment and summer school programs. It also evaluated how outside impacts, like poverty and unemployment rates, are affecting schools.

First, the good news: Fresno Unified was the only district surveyed that employs more counselors now than in 2007, and it didn't give out any layoff notices to teachers this past spring.

About 75 school counselors are now employed by Fresno Unified -- 10 more than six years ago and enough to bring the district's average counselor-to-student ratio down to about 400 to 1.

Ruth Quinto, Fresno Unified's chief financial officer, said districts were given more flexibility to use certain state funds starting in 2009. For example, the district was no longer required to maintain a 20-1 student-teacher ratio and upping class sizes saved the district $11 million. She said the district saved an additional $35 million by scaling back some Fresno Adult School programs, among other programs, which freed up dollars for new hires.

Clovis Unified cut its counseling staff to fund other areas, said district spokeswoman Kelly Avants. The district's advising staff dropped from 55 to 43 between 2007 and 2013.

Neither district handed out pink slips to teachers this year. Clovis Unified has never laid off teachers during economic hard times, said Michael Johnston, assistant superintendent for business services.

"Those typically come in March and they are given a layoff notice right in the middle of testing," he said. "We've always protected against that."

But there's still some cause for concern. The new local control funding method that gives extra dollars to low-income districts includes a requirement that districts lower class sizes to 24 students within eight years. That puts new pressure on both Fresno and Clovis schools, which according to the study now average 26 to 30 students per classroom.

"Kindergarten isn't letters and numbers anymore, kindergarten is learning to read," said Rhonnie Tinsley, executive director of the Fresno Teachers Association. "When (teachers) had 20 kids in a classroom they could actually do a lot more ... now we're back up to 30 and managing the crowd."

The percentage of low-income Fresno Unified students jumped by almost double-digit numbers between 2007 and 2011. The report showed 47% of the district's students are in low-income homes, the highest of any district surveyed.

Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified's superintendent, said that's one factor the district can't control. But he said it's one of his biggest concerns.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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