Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Orleans School Board suspends teacher raises, allows larger classes

New Orleans moves more and more to a two class system of public schools – underfunded schools run by the School Board, and charter schools w/ superior programs and less needy students. One hopes this is not NYC’s future as well.- Leonie Haimson

Orleans School Board suspends teacher raises, allows larger classes
by Sarah Carr, The Times-Picayune

Monday March 30, 2009, 9:59 PM

Faced with an estimated $13 million deficit, the Orleans Parish School Board voted Monday night to increase the maximum student-to-teacher ratio in the district's five schools next year and to suspend cost-of-living salary increases for employees.

The vote on class-size limits keeps the district in line with state guidelines governing class size. But it represents a significant change from the two-year period after Hurricane Katrina, when the district staffed classrooms at a 20:1 student-to-teacher ratio. The new maximum works out to about 26:1 at the elementary level and about 30:1 in the upper grades.

This year, the elementary school ratio is 24:1, while the high schools are at 26:1, according to the director of human resources for the district.

Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Darryl Kilbert said, "We are not saying that all classrooms will be at these (new) numbers."

He said the move simply sets a higher cap. But the vote does suggest that class sizes may continue to inch up in the fall. District officials said they no longer have the money for the lower student-to-teacher ratios, although it's unclear at this point in the budgeting process how much money will be saved through the change.

The suspension of the cost-of-living increase will save the district about $336,000. For most teachers, the increases total about 2 percent of their annual salary, and they have been offered annually for the first 29 years of employment.

The school district announced at a news conference in February that the deficit stems from a weakening economy and unique financial obligations left from the dramatic downsizing of the district post-Katrina. The district has $6 million in "legacy costs" it must pay annually, such as health care expenses linked to when the school system was much larger.

The district also is carrying about $450 million in long-term debt, part of which the state-run Recovery School District makes payments toward retiring.

Before Katrina, the Orleans School Board ran more than 100 schools. But now -- with a state takeover of many schools and the chartering of dozens of others -- it directly controls only five. District officials have appealed publicly for help in crafting legislative relief from having to bear the brunt of millions of dollars in costs inherited from the past.

In addition to the changes in the pay-increase schedule and class sizes, the school board will require its schools to use a "zero-based budgeting" process for next year. That means they must build budgets from scratch instead of assuming that past spending levels will be sustained.

The school board plans to review fringe benefits and holiday policies this month in search of more savings. Kilbert said that, if necessary, the district will cut staff positions. But he called that option "a last resort" that would not go before the board until May.

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