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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Budget reckoning has left Spokane schools with bigger classes

Sacajawea Middle School students Brooklyn Jenson, left, and Kaitlyn Hawker, measure the gripping pieces on a Spokane police department bomb robot in this photo from January. Spokane class sizes have grown across the district in the wake of budget cuts and fewer teachers. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

At almost every school in Spokane, classrooms are filled with more students after budget cuts announced last spring led to the loss of about 100 teachers.

According to preliminary numbers released this week, more than 1,000 classes will hold at least 28 students each. Of those, more than 200 classes will have at least 31 students, a figure the district defines as a “hot spot” for immediate attention.

“We’re watching the numbers,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said Tuesday.

However, the district has scant discretionary funds available, and must be content in upcoming weeks to address only those classrooms with the highest student-to-teacher ratios.

The rest may be left all year.

As of Tuesday, 30 students were crammed into each sixth-grade home room at Hutton, Browne and Finch elementaries.

At Glover Middle School, all classes of Middle School Mathematics held 31 students or more.

The first-year Spanish classes at Shadle Park High School average 34 students.

It could have been worse. Last month the school board approved $1.4 million to reduce combination classes at elementary schools and earmarked other funds to deal with hot spots as they appear.

Since the school year began on Aug. 28, some elementary students have been shifted to other schools. On Wednesday night, the board of directors will hear from principals at some of the hardest-hit buildings, Rogers High School and Sacajawea Middle School.

The work is just beginning, according to Redinger, who said the district is waiting for enrollment to settle before making more adjustments.

Tough math

At Rogers, the first day of school was a puzzle: How do you cram 30 or more students into a classroom?

Principal Lori Wyborney and her staff have confronted that question 72 times in the past 10 days, in every subject from math to science.

The layoffs were deep at Rogers, which had 120 certificated staff last year. It now has 105.

The district hasn’t revealed comparable overall numbers from last year, but the difference has been noted by administrators.

“The classes are definitely bigger,” Wyborney said Tuesday. “But I have an amazing staff, and we had spent a lot of time in the spring talking about it.”

Fortunately, they knew this was coming, after the district announced major budget cuts and 183 teacher layoffs last spring.

Since then, Wyborney said, counselors have worked to help balance classes while teachers and staff tried to envision “what it’s going to look like with 32 students,” Wyborney said.

The changes have made Wyborney appreciative of teachers qualified to teach multiple subjects. For example, she said a French teacher also handles Spanish lessons; a drama teacher also leads an English class; and a former librarian now teaches early childhood education.

Rogers got some relief in the sciences as the district allocated two full-time equivalent positions for biology and chemistry.

“That really helped,” said Wyborney, who said she could use even more: The eight Chemistry A classes at Rogers average almost 30 students.

Despite all that, Wyborney said Rogers is having “one of the best starts we’ve had in years.”

During a recent welcome assembly for freshmen, Wyborney said she watched in amazement as the new ninth-graders walked into the gymnasium in a straight line and took their seats in order.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Wyborney said.

Spreading the pain

Last weekend, the district released information on class sizes. It came in three charts, each filled with thousands of cells and numbers.

The numbers show the district’s determination to comply with a state mandate to average no more than 19 students in each class for kindergarten through the third grade – even as the teaching staff was trimmed from 2,008 to 1,911.

For example, all 12 K-3 classes at Wilson have 19 students or fewer. It’s the same at Grant, Balboa and Garfield.

Meanwhile, at Hutton all of those classes have 19 or more students, with nine of the 17 classes on the South Hill holding 22 or more students. That’s far above the average.

At Sheridan, 13 of 14 classes contained 20 students or more.

Most elementary schools saw only slight increases in class sizes.

However, Mullan Road, Browne and Lidgerwood all have at least four classes with 31 students or more.

Most of the pain is being felt at the middle school level, where hot spots proliferate. At Sacajawea, 33 classes hold at least 31 kids; another 89 classes have 28 to 30 students each.

The situation is similar at Garry, where 30 classes hold 31 or more students.

At the district’s five high schools, a total of 216 classes will hold at least 31 students; of those, only 53 are in historically larger classes for physical education and music.

At North Central, 136 classes will hold 28 students or more; Shadle Park will have 82 such classes, Rogers 99 and Ferris and Lewis & Clark 148 each.

The district also combined foreign-language classes.

Perhaps the most dramatic cost-cutting came in foreign languages at the secondary level. For example, at Rogers, 13 second-year French students will share a class with 10 third-year students and a fourth-year student.

Similar arrangements are in place at all five high schools.

“We do use software a lot with threes and fours (in foreign languages),” Wyborney said.

Few choices

School board members are set to hear from Wyborney, Sacajawea principal Jeremy Ochse and Moran Prairie Elementary principal Clint Price during their regular meeting tonight.

No action will be taken, but the board has the option to tap reserves to ease classroom sizes.

Doing so would require careful timing, said Redinger, who wants to see the classroom numbers harden at each school.

“We don’t want to be premature. We don’t want to make a change in one area and then have to go back and change it again,” Redinger said in the midst of the third week of school.