Vote is 4-2; board votes 5-1 to maintain four sections in fourth grade with enrollment projected in the upper-70s

    The Crookston School Board did something Monday that few if anyone thought a few years ago they’d ever have to do when they agreed with Superintendent Chris Bates’ recommendation to have only three sections of second grade during the 2018-19 school year because the class size as of now is projected to be only 66 students.

    Keeping section sizes small in order to provide a positive student-to-teacher ratio has been a top priority of board members for years in kindergarten through sixth grade. Years ago, the debate would arise from time to time over having five sections of a grade versus four, but in recent years as a pattern of declining enrollment has once again settled in, a yearly pattern of offering four sections in the elementary grades has become the norm.

    Until now.

    “That is a number we have not seen in a long, long time,” Bates said of the projected second grade enrollment of 66 students.

    The vote was 4-2 in favor of offering three sections of second grade in 2018-19. Board members Dave Davidson and Adrianne Winger voted against. Bates said the plan, unless enrollment grows, will be to offer three sections as that class makes its way through the elementary grades.

    There was also a debate about the 2018-19 fourth grade class, which as of now is projected to have 76 students. Bates recommended reducing that grade from four sections to three as well, but board member Tim Dufault was the only one to vote in favor of that, so four sections will be offered.

The discussion

    Bates said having 22 kids per section of second grade would still be “in the ballpark” in regard to section sizes preferred by the board. Fourth grade was more iffy, he acknowledged, because it would amount to around 25 kids per section. If enrollment grew by a few students, Bates said a teacher could be hired in late summer to boost the section number to four. (Board Chair Frank Fee did note that Jeremy Olson, the district’s new superintendent who will succeed the retiring Bates this summer, has two twin daughters who will be in fourth grade. That alone would boost the fourth grade enrollment projection to 78, Fee said.)

    But Monday’s votes were made with the knowledge that in recent years, enrollment more often than not tends to drop some from spring projections to the kids who actually show up in September.

    Bates said his recommendations were part of an effort to right-size the district, which means right-sizing the staff. He noted that recent contract settlements, including the two-year contract with the Crookston Education Association, will result in a budget deficit that could be eased by reducing labor costs in grades where it’s possible, such as second and fourth grade.

    Bates noted that annual spring teacher retirements appear to be minimal, and possibly non-existent this spring, meaning that isn’t an available source for cost savings. He added that at least one elementary teacher appears poised to leave the district after the current school year.

    Davidson said he was “against going to three sections, period,” adding that literacy funding could be at stake if scores on tests given to third and fourth graders don’t produce the desired results.

    More than section sizes, Bates said that “without question” he thinks teacher quality is the greatest indicator of academic success. If the debate was over having 30-plus kids in an elementary classroom, Bates said he’d favor more sections. “But, personally, I think when you get a very small grade you have to make adjustments,” he said, adding that those adjustments need to be made now for the purposes of properly planning staff alignments for the fall. If the board left four sections of second grade in place and the enrollment dropped more over the summer, the district could be left with section sizes in the neighborhood of 15 kids, which wouldn’t be the best investment of district dollars, Bates added.

    “I don’t want to leave a $300,000 or $400,000 deficit for Dr. Olson when he gets here,” the superintendent said.

    Dufault said he’s a proponent of high-quality classroom education as anyone, but “it comes down to money, and we have to pay for this thing.” He added that the new contract with the CEA cost the district $1.2 million and that $700,000 of that is coming from reserves. “We have to watch our dollars,” Dufault said.

    Davidson said he wasn’t a fan of the notion that it would be so easy to hire a good teacher in August if enrollment projections grow over the summer. “In August there are no quality hires out there; we’re trying to access a quality pool now,” he said. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but in August, the people who couldn’t get hired everywhere else they pursued are still looking for work.”

    While most of the board agreed with the reduction to three sections in second grade, there was little appetite for going to three sections of fourth grade.

    “Have you ever taught 25 kids in a classroom? If everyone was great and on perfect behavior all the time it would be great, but in this time and age so many kids need extra help and assistance,” board member Adrianne Winger said.

    Fee said that around $200,000 will need to be cut from the 2018-19 budget, but he said he couldn’t support coming up with some of that money by reducing the number of fourth grade sections. “We always try to make those reductions not affect students, and the principals will have their work cut out for them as they try to find some funds,” he said. “I understand what Tim is saying very much, but I’d rather err on the side of doing what’s right; it sounds self-serving, but that’s doing what’s right for the child.”

    Fee, along with board member Patty Dillabough, noted that parents are likely keeping a close eye on what the board does as far as elementary section sizes go. “So many kids are from broken homes, there’s so much happening in their homes,” Dillabough said. “It’s a real hard age for these kids, and I don’t want to hear more of ‘I’m taking my kid out’ for this, that, or another reason. Not every teacher can handle all of these issues, and all of the students suffer as a result.”

    Bates said he’d meet with Highland School Principal Chris Trostad on Tuesday to start crafting a staffing plan for the 2018-19 school year.