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School system follows class-size exemption

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Enrollment in the Henry County School System is expected to increase by at least 300 students, and every classroom will be allowed to carry two more students than this year. And the change is not based as much on growth, as on the need to relieve the school system's cash-strapped budget.

"Changes to class size are made in conjunction with other cost-savings measures across the system, and in response to the budgetary reductions," said Ethan Hildreth, Henry County Schools' assistant superintendent of administrative services.

The school system's proposed 2011 budget, at $284 million, includes cost-cutting measures, such as increasing maximum class sizes by two pupils to reduce the need to hire more teachers.

School officials expect the measure will decrease the system's need to fill 72 instructional positions, which should help offset budget shortfalls created by declining state and local revenue.

Henry's projected enrollment for the fall is 40,805 students.

Earlier this week, the State Board of Education granted an exemption to class-size maximums for the 2010-11 school year, to allow school districts more flexibility to manage their 2011 budgets.

"School districts have been financially devastated by the economy, so the State Board took action to help districts balance their budgets," said State Board of Education Chairperson Wanda Barrs, in a news release. "Increasing class size is never ideal, but a slight increase will allow systems to significantly conserve resources, while managing through these difficult times."

School systems will be required to submit a local school board resolution to the Georgia Department of Education before class-size maximums can exceed the current requirements, according to stae education officials. In Henry County, school officials do not expect additional increases beyond the previously allowed two-pupil addition to the current maximum, which varies depending on subject and grade level.

The new maximums will affect schools, large and small, said Luella Middle School Principal Aaryn Schmuhl, echoing the sentiments of many local educators. His student body shrank this year by more than 1,000 students.

"With the opening of Locust Grove Middle and Hampton Middle, our population dropped from a high of 1,800 last year to a more manageable 750 this year," Schmuhl said. "However, we still have nearly all of our classrooms at the class-size maximums, even with the smaller, school-wide population."

Luella has topped the maximum class size of 32 students in most of its academic subjects, with nearly all seventh- and eighth-grade classes enrolling 30-31 students, he said.

"The class-size concerns are the same for our school, whether we were large and overcrowded, like last year, or smaller, like this year," he said, adding that student enrollment at Luella is projected to grow this fall, from 750 students, to 765. "But we will have one less teaching position allocated to our school," Schmuhl said. "Normally, as the student body grows, we are granted additional positions in the fall, but the district worked hard to try to minimize this shifting, and we should be stable for next fall with our current number of teachers."

Schmuhl said schools are having to be creative to decrease the workload on teachers, who may be dealing with larger classes, as well as more classes throughout the school day.

"I don't anticipate any huge changes in the way schools in Henry County operate next year as the district has worked hard to balance the budget while having as little direct impact on classroom instruction as possible," Schmuhl said. "Thirty-two middle school students in one classroom makes it challenging to provide the necessary feedback, and one-on-one attention that we would like to give each student."