Class size bill draws concern from state education board

Published: Sunday, Feb. 26 2012 4:34 p.m. MST

The state Board of Education has backed off its support of a bill before the Utah Legislature that would set smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grades.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The state Board of Education has backed off its support of a bill before the Utah Legislature that would set smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grades.

Board members had previously supported SB31, but that changed Thursday after Deputy Superintendent Martell Menlove called the bill "problematic" since an amendment by the Senate changed the original concept. Specifically, senators removed the fiscal note to the bill. leaving some ambiguity as to how school districts would pay for reducing class sizes. Menlove said that without added funds, implementing the bill would make district retirement plans impossible to maintain.

"To reduce class size to the degree that (bill sponsor) Senator Morgan intended had a large fiscal note attached to it," he said.

Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake, said the original bill called for $3.6 million dollars to phase in the class-size restrictions, but in the process of clearing the Senate that amount was removed in lieu of attaching the bill to an existing class-size reduction effort in Utah that allocated $103 million this fiscal year. Morgan's bill would add penalties to the existing law, which could mean school districts losing class-size reduction funding if they don't meet state standards.

"I have no problem with that," Morgan said of the change. "I believe in fiscal responsibility."

She expects the bill to be voted on by the House sometimes this week. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, who has made education funding a top priority in his proposed budget, said the governor would not comment on Morgan's bill while it was still in the legislative process.

Menlove cited estimates by the State Office of Education that anywhere from $20 to $30 million would be required to adequately implement the class size caps. He said that the spending power of the funds allocated to districts for class-size reductions has lessened when compared to increased costs and inflation. Were SB31 to pass, he said, the most likely result would be that school resources would merely be reallocated, causing class sizes in grades four, five and six to increase.

Faced with that possibility, the school board considered withdrawing their support of the current bill. At one point, board member Janet Cannon suggested adding the caveat that a significant input of money would be necessary to implement the bill without affecting older grades but the board voted it down, leaving their support for the bill unclear. 

Morgan said Utah has the largest class sizes in the nation and that 36 states have enacted class size restrictions. In the case of regional neighbors Idaho and Nevada, those class size caps are smaller than what SB31 would put in place. She agreed that larger class sizes for older students could potentially occur, but added that she views the bill as a starting point to eventually establishing size caps for all grades

"We can only do one piece at a time," she said.

She also said the financial analyst she worked with on the bill was confident that the limits could be reached without a significant increase in costs, emphasizing that her bill allows for the hiring of paraprofessionals, which do not require as high a salary as new teachers and who contribute to a smaller student-to-faculty ratio.

"The districts can implement this with the money we're giving them," she said.

At the end of the board's discussion of the bill, State Superintendent Larry Shumway reiterated that the board of education remains committed to decreasing class sizes in Utah and said he would reflect the boards concerns on funding and unintended consequences when discussing SB31 with members of the legislature.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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