Small class sizes might be good for students and teachers, but they're bad for a school district struggling to solve a multimillion-dollar deficit. And if the Pittsburgh Public Schools is going to balance its budget, administrators say, all the district's classrooms must be filled to capacity.
During a community presentation last night, city school officials explained that empty classroom seats represent a huge financial burden for the district, which faces a projected $68 million deficit for its next fiscal year. The meeting, hosted by A+ Schools, featured presentations from Superintendent Linda Lane and Jeanine French, both of whom stressed that reducing under-enrolled classes could save the district up to $32 million per year.
Right now, "We're running inefficiently," French, chief of school performance, told an audience of roughly 200 parents, teachers and community members inside the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters, on the South Side.
Last night's presentation was the second community meeting focused on how the district can solve its budget deficit, which could potentially climb to $100 million by 2015 if nothing is done. In May, Lane told community members that the district's financial woes would require a number of painful changes, including central office layoffs, school closings and course reductions.
The district took its first step toward tackling the deficit last week. In a move that is expected to save an estimated $11.5 million annually, the school board voted to eliminate 217 central office positions at its June 22 legislative meeting. But with tens of millions more to cut, the district must now look to its classrooms for relief.
According to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 60 percent of the district's classrooms currently have a "significant number" of empty seats. Just 55 percent of students are in a full class.
The district's maximum class size varies by grade: for elementary schools, it's 25 students; for middle schools, it's 28; and for high schools, it's 30. But in both elementary and middle schools, the district's current average class size is just 22 students, while the high school average is 21.
Many classrooms holding even fewer students; the situation is worst at the high school level, where there are classes with less than 15 students in some schools.
"We do have some very small classes at the high schools," Lane said.
Historically, parents and teachers often cry foul when districts propose increasing class sizes, but French stressed at the meeting that larger class sizes don't necessarily translate to poorer student achievement. The district currently has high-performing schools with large class sizes, she said, and it also has low-performing schools with small class sizes.
Whether or not that explanation will placate parents and teachers has yet to be seen. But if the district is going "to get to a place where we're spending within our means," as Lane said last night, its going to have to start putting asses in the open seats.