On Budgets and Class Size

    The Montauk School Board went into executive session on Tuesday to discuss its plan to comply with a state-mandated teacher evaluation system. The district is the last on Long Island to approve a plan. The deadline is Jan. 19.
    If a plan is not submitted to the State Department of Education by that date the district will lose its state financial aid. When the executive session ended, the board unanimously approved the program. Teachers were set to give their approval today.
    Also at the meeting, the board considered changing the school’s class-size policy. Speaking in front of a large group of concerned parents, board members made it clear that it was just a discussion and that a vote would not be taken until the next meeting.
    Diane Hausman, the school board president, told the parents that the district’s hands were tied because of the state-imposed 2-percent cap on tax levy increases. She said that with increased health insurance premiums and retirement payments, other areas had to be cut. It was pointed out that several other programs had already been cut in the last year, including the summer school program and after-school and morning programs.
    The school’s current class-size policy for kindergarten through eighth grade aims at 18 to a class, with a maximum of 24 students. If approved, the new policy would see 18 to 20 in a class, with a maximum of 28.
    Prekindergarten would be increased to 21 in a class. Last year, the board had to reduce the preschool program to a half-day session to keep the numbers down. If enrollment were to drop, the board could reinstate the full-day program.
    In a statement on the school’s Web site, the board reserved the right to stray from the policy, depending on the unique nature of each class.
    “I don’t care what research there is, the less kids I have as a teacher the better my instruction will be,” said Jack Perna, the district superintendent, who was a fourth-grade teacher before he became vice principal and then superintendent. He said that even in the larger classes, students are often broken up into groups and taken to specialized learning, such as the English as a second language program.
    Parents worried that if the class sizes were to increase their children wouldn’t get individualized attention from teachers. One asked if the school could bypass the 2-percent tax cap.
    Mr. Perna explained that it could pierce the cap but doing so would have to be approved by 60 percent of district voters. If after two tries that vote fell short, the school could lose its ability to increase the budget at all. “If you don’t have the 2 percent, you get zero,” he said.
    Colette Clancy, the president of the teachers union, said after the meeting that increasing class size would be a mistake, especially in light of the programs that were cut last year. Summer school, she said, kept the ball rolling for students, and teachers were proud of how well students have performed as a result of small classes. “It’s a no-brainer, small class size is a proven,” she said.
    A parent asked how 28 students in a class would stack up to the rest of Long Island and was told that the average was 25.
    Board members insisted that changing the class-size policy would only be a precaution. “We have to take hard looks; it’s painful for all of us,” said Ms. Hausman. “This gives us the flexibility if we need to make changes and we’re stuck,” she later added.