Steamboat Springs Superintendent Shalee Cunningham retained control of the Steamboat Springs School District's class-size policy after a 3-2 School Board vote Monday.
The split vote came after a 90-minute class-size discussion attended by about 35 parents and community members. Discussion points ranged from parents pushing for maximum class-size caps to administrators questioning the educational benefit of further reducing class sizes at the expense of programs and course offerings.
Cunningham reiterated her belief that class sizes are small in Steamboat Springs. She said she will continue to work with parents and community members to clarify the district's class-size policy.
The current policy calls for a teacher-to-student ratio of 19-to-1 in the elementary schools and 18-to-1 in the secondary schools. Cunningham said that although the policy is being met, it can be deceptive to parents because it includes all teachers in the school and is an average. Classes may range higher or lower.
"I think clearly there is a real sense of misunderstanding and deceit around the policy," Cunningham said.
One way to ensure small class sizes in every classroom would be a cap on the maximum number of students, an idea suggested Monday by some parents.
Parent Melissa VanArsdale presented a list with 134 signatures of people who support keeping class sizes low throughout the district. The petition called for a cap on maximum class size, changing the policy from administrative to board control, and for the board and administration to work together.
VanArsdale said the petitioners were not particular about the policy falling under board control as long as there was community discussion about it.
"We are parents who voted for the half-cent sales tax, and we expect small class size to remain a top priority in the district," she read to the board. "Although many classes are now at acceptable sizes, there are several elementary school classes at 24 and 25, kindergarten at 20, and middle school classes at 27 and 28."
Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Tim Bishop disagreed with the idea of instituting a cap on maximum class size. Bishop said having a cap would result in a trade-off with programs and staffing.
"What are we going to cut that we currently have and we feel is important for kids to get 22 in a class, 23 in a class, 24 in a class?" he asked. "We've spent about 10 years building our schedule, and we've got more offerings for our kids than have ever been there."
Bishop said "achievement scores are higher than they've ever been," and he would rather keep programs in place.
"I'd like to know where the money will come from, because I know I don't have the money in the budget, and I don't think our school will be any better" if class sizes are reduced, he said.
After the lengthy discussion, the School Board voted to keep the policy under administrative control. Board members Denise Connelly and John DeVincentis voted against the measure.
Board members also debated the merits of small class sizes based on educational research. DeVincentis said his research has shown small class sizes are beneficial, especially for young children, while board member Lisa Brown said her research has indicated that high-quality teachers are more important.
Because of the differing conclusions and multiple points of view, Brown said she would prefer to leave the decision to Cunningham.
"My feeling is that school boards are capricious and superintendents are professional," she said. "We don't have the expertise to really go into the research. We're not managing the district like the superintendent is, which is addressing all of these variables."
Cunningham said she will return to the board with updates as she prepares school capacity reports, enrollment estimates and final staffing for the next school year.
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