School Districts Say They Determine Class Size, Not Union Contracts
MacIver News Service | February 28, 2011
[Madison, Wisc...] Despite what union protesters in Madison may chant or write on their picket signs, school districts in Wisconsin say union contracts play no role in class sizes.
Throughout the union protests in Madison, the Wisconsin Education Association Council has insisted that collectively-bargained union contracts are the only reason school districts keep class sizes down.
Last week, Mary Bell, WEAC President, said in a press release “Workers’ right to a voice protects the safety of schools, class sizes for our children and ensures quality patient care – and it prevents the middle class from shrinking even more.”
However, in emailed responses to our inquiries, district administrators told the MacIver News Service most of their contracts do not contain any language pertaining to class sizes. Instead, class sizes are dictated by student needs, parent and teacher input, public pressure, the school board and administration’s desire to keep class sizes down, fire codes, and budgetary issues. Some districts are also bound by their participation in SAGE, a state funding program designed to keep class sizes down.
For example, Milwaukee Public Schools have their own provision for class sizes built into their administrative policies that are set solely at the district level. Their formula for determining class size can be found under statute 7.25, and has been in place since 1977. This policy is meant to keep a balance across district classrooms, limiting seats to no more than 25 students per class in P-5 schools and no more than 27 in higher level classrooms.
As Bob Reynolds, Slinger’s District Administrator, explained, “Our class sizes have and will be kept at reasonable levels because of parent pressure. Nothing fills up the visitor’s seating area at a school board meeting faster than a class size issue.”
Several district administrators told us that union contracts, if anything, make keeping class sizes down more challenging.
“The union contract may actually increase class size when it hampers the productive use of revenue, such as provisions for WEA Trust Insurance in the contract.” Michael Krumm, Kewaskum.
“The union has no impact on class size. If anything, the union has caused increased class size due to the cost of previous settlements.” Dan Olson, Campbellsport.
“They increase class size because high salary and benefits means less teachers and higher class size.” Robert Mayfield, Kimberly.
“They play a big part, the more money we have to add to their compensation and benefits the less staff we can hire to keep class sizes in check. We face more and more need for services, teachers want more help, but they don’t seem to understand that without additional funding we can’t hire the extra help.” Morrie Veilleux, New Richmond.
If the budget repair bill fails, districts fear keeping class sizes down will become even more challenging. Districts expect the state to reduce aid in the next budget, and say they need the flexibility to deal with the unions that Governor Walker is proposing.
“If Governor Walker is not successful in this endeavor, we will be stuck with making cuts without the ability to adjust to them. In other words, if the bill does not pass, the likelihood of class sizes increasing is much higher than if it passes.” Jim Jones, Stanley Boyd.
“If those contracts went away and we had more flexibility with addressing student needs and benefit costs we probably would be able to hire additional staff. That won’t happen now because any decrease in the expenses of WRS, Health insurance costs, etc., are now going to offset most likely by equalization aid reductions, reduction in the revenue limit of $500 per student and thus we will not have the savings with which to hire more staff where needed. Less contract language will provide more flexibility to better meet the needs of our kids. Maybe we will be able to reduce our OPEB liability across the board which would free up $1,300,000 in our current budget that could be used to provide smaller class sizes where needed, technology, etc.” Morrie Veilleux, New Richmond.
About this data:
MacIver News Service sent an email questionnaire to all school districts in Wisconsin. The questions included “what role do union contracts play in keeping class sizes down?” and “If those contracts went away, what would stop the district from increasing class sizes?” More than 50 districts responded.