More than $2 million hangs in the balance as school officials struggle to change the wording of current Virginia legislation that limits the number of pupils taught in a classroom, Fairfax school officials say.
Fairfax school administrators are supporting a change in wording of the legislation, saying it is unrealistic as it now stands and destroys flexibility in staffing Fairfax schools.
"We are not opposed to the concept of limited class size. Fairfax County has long supported small classes," said Myron Cale, assistant superintendent for financial services of Fairfax schools. "But we are opposed to the rigidity of the law as it stands. It prevents us from using our resources in the best interests of education."
Virginia's Standards of Quanlity for public schools, as amended last year by the General Assembly, say that by September, 1977, no more than 28 pupils may be taught in a classroom in grades one through three. More than 28 students would require an instructional aide be placed in the class or another class be formed.
Several groups of school officials throughout Virginia are asking that the General Assembly amend the standards again this year to make the law more flexible.
Fairfax school administrators say it would cost the school system between $1.7 and $2.4 million to meet the letter of the current law.
It would cost Fairfax schools $2.4 million to hire moer than 200 new teachers to staff first through third grade classes with no more than 28 students in each, said Jack Bickford, assistant superintendent for personnel. It would cost about $1.7 million to hire 10 new teachers and nearly 300 in instructional aides for classes with no more than 28 pupils.
"Our budget just can't absorb that kind of hiring," explained Jackie Benson, assistant superintendent for instructional services. "What this law means is that we actually can put no more than 26 students in each class to avoid creating a whole new class when a couple of new students show up a the middle of the school year."
She added that between $5 and $9 million may be lopped off Fairfax schools' tentative 1977-78 budget of $289 million if Virginia's deficit causes a reduction of state aid to schools.
"Facing that kind of shortfall, the extra hiring needed under the law could impact heavily on the instructional programs Fairfax schools have been able to offer," Benson said.
Fairfax schools currently have an average of 28 pupils per class in first and second grades. "Only a handful" have 35 pupils, Bickford said. Third grade classes average 30 pupils per classroom, but the superintendent's proposed budget earmarks about $250,000 to hire 23 new teachers to bring the third grade down to an average of 28 pupils per class.
"Average is the key word." Cale said. "With an average standard you can have a few students above or below 28 per class, depending on the educational benefits. A maximum limit holds you to a rigid class size."
"This isn't a one-short problem," Cale continued. "The law calls for a maximum of only 24 students per class in these grades by 1981-82. That's going to amount to a lot of spending and reduction in other educational areas if the law stays the way it is."
Fairfax school administrators, along with other Virginia education groups, are urging the General Assembly that the 28 pupils per class be changed from a maximum number per class to an average number per class.
"This would give us enough leeway to staff our classes the way we see best depending on the class," Benson explained.
The Fairfax County school system is approaching the coming school year on the assumption that the law will be amended to provide for an average class size rather than a maximum size.
"If the law is not changed, we will reshuffle all a available teaching personnel into the regular classrooms," Cale said. "That will mean losing some of our special programs and extra resources that makes for a quality school system, but it's the only way we can abide by the law when we can't afford hiring more staff."
The Fairfax Education Association supports retainign the maximum size class provision at it stands.
"The word 'average' means absolutely nothing," said Ed Anderson, president of the FEA. "Under that kind of provision, you could have classes up to 35 students, just as it is now."
Anderson said many Fairfax teachers have complained that large classes reduce teachers' effectiveness in the classroom.
Legislators now are examining possible compromises to make the law "something everyone can live with," said Del James Dillard of the 19th District.
"We are looking at removing the maximum 28 pupil requirement and establishing an average that would be slightly lower," said Dillard, who sits on the Standards of Quality subcommittee of the House Education Committee. "Then we would establish a size that no first through third grade class could exceed without including an instructional aide or new teacher."
The subcommittee last week discussed establishing an average class size of 27 that could not exceed 32 pupils without including an instructional aide or adding a new teacher.
Dillard said several bills concerning maximum class size are being introduced in the House. He expects the subcommittee's compromise solution on the maximum size class conflict - or one similar - to teach the floor for a vote either tomorrow or early next week.
"I don't expect a floor fight on the issue," said Dillard, who helped engineer the maximum class size provision in 1975. "Hopefully our compromise will satisy the concerns of all sides.