By Johnny Jackson
The State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to approve a statewide measure to exempt class-size maximums for the state's elementary and middle schools during the 2009-10 school year.
Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox requested that the board consider a one-year class-size waiver to help school districts across the state offset financial loses caused by economic hard times. The waiver, for elementary and middle schools, would be a one-time exception, starting next fall.
"Hopefully, the economy will improve and it will not be necessary in 2010-11," said Matt Cardoza, spokesman with the Georgia Department of Education. "This will help some [school] districts reduce the number of extra teachers they have to hire for the coming school year, thus reducing personnel costs."
According to Cardoza, the savings could be as high as $180 million statewide.
The measure could mean more for the Henry County Schools, still a fast-growing school district which hires many additional teachers on a yearly basis. In years past, the district has increased at a rate of about 8 percent from year-to-year. Currently, the district is growing at about 3 percent annually, with nearly 40,000 students enrolled this year.
Cox's proposal will effectively increase the average, maximum class sizes by two students per classroom, in elementary and middle schools.
"If we can go up two students in every classroom, we can save upwards of $6 million," said Ray Hudalla, acting chairman of the Henry County Board of Education. "If you can add two students, it's going to definitely make it so that you don't have to add as many teachers. That is going to be the biggest cost-saving measure that we're going to encounter for the next budget year."
About 71 percent of Henry County's nearly $327 million budget this year (Fiscal Year 2009) will go toward instructional and personnel costs.
The measure comes just in time for most school boards, who will soon begin setting their budgets and offering teaching contracts for the 2009-10 school year.
"This will allow them to plan for what is anticipated to be a very difficult budget year," said Cardoza. "The governor has already said local [school] districts should plan for 3 percent budget cuts, but that could change - one way or another - depending on how the session goes."
The temporary adjustments to the class-size mandate do not necessary mean each class will have a maximum-sized classroom roll, he warns, adding that the adjustments will not allow districts to add any more than 2-3 students per class in grades K-8.
No class size increases are proposed for high schools; high school classes are already capped at 32.
"It is a difficult choice and one that was not made overnight," Cardoza said. "But the main issue is that state revenue is dropping and local revenue is dropping as well. That means costs are going to have to be cut somewhere at the local level. We believe school systems have done quite a bit to meet their current budget challenges and this will give them a little bit more flexibility."
Members of the Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA) have already discussed the move with Superintendent Kathy Cox and recently stated their agreement with Cox on the "stopgap" measure.
"The fiscal crisis facing local systems is real, and this is one of many steps that they will have to take to address it," said Herbert Garrett, executive director of GSSA. "State funds are being cut in larger numbers than had been anticipated, local funds will undoubtedly drop due to decreases in the value of property, and steps like this will simply be necessary to keep schools operating."