Budget cuts force Valley class sizes to grow

Budget cuts are hurting California's class-size reduction campaign -- once a key part of the state's effort to improve academic performance.

The state provides financial incentives to keep K-3 classes small, with the maximum benefit going to those averaging fewer than 20.44. It also levies penalties if classes get too big in the higher grades.

But many districts say they still can't afford to hire enough teachers to meet those goals.

The number of districts asking to be exempted from the rules for upper primary grades increased from 10 last year to 63 this year. Among Valley districts filing for the first time are Coalinga-Huron Unified and Kerman Unified.

By raising K-3 class sizes from 20 to 24 students, Fresno Unified expects to save $4 million this year said Ruth Quinto, the district's deputy superintendent and chief financial officer.

The savings come from reduced staffing, which compensates for the lost incentive money, she said.

Clovis Unified officials expect class-size averages in K-3 classes to rise from 21 last year to 25 this year.

Enrollment jumped by about 500 students this fall to 38,400, Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said. The district is hiring teachers for the schools with the largest enrollment jumps, including those in southeast Clovis.

Increased class sizes this year will save Clovis Unified about $2 million, including the loss of incentives, said Michael Johnston, assistant superintendent of business services.

Visalia Unified's K-2 class sizes this year will be similar to those in Clovis and slightly larger than last year's. As part of a budget reduction, the district took third grade classes out of the state's incentive program about five years ago, said Doug Bartsch, an area superintendent.

The district has an enrollment increase of about 400 this year, mostly in elementary grades.

Bartsch said initial indications are that families are moving into the district to live with other families, possibly "a reflection about what is happening in the economy.

"It is still more cost-effective to have a few more students in a classroom than to add a teacher's position," he said.

Budget cutting forced both Madera Unified and Sanger Unified school districts to raise K-3 class sizes for this school year.

In Madera, average class sizes are climbing from 24.5 to 28 students, said Jake Bragonier, the district's spokesman.

Some districts say they believe larger classes won't necessarily hurt the drive to improve academic performance.

Sanger Unified, for example, thinks that improving teacher training may be as effective as class-size reduction, said Rich Smith, deputy superintendent.

"Lower class sizes are something we want to move to but there is a financial reality attached to that," he said. "We are looking to make teachers more effective in instruction ... and assist our teachers in becoming better instructors."