Trustees split 5-2 over waiver
In a 5-2 split vote, Port Aransas ISD trustees voted on Tuesday, Oct. 12, to ask the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for a waiver in the maximum student-teacher ratio in a fourth-grade class at H.G. Olsen Elementary School.
TEA guidelines call for no more than 22 students per teacher. Of H.G. Olsen’s two fourth-grade sections, one has 22 students; the other has 23, and has had since the beginning of the school year, district enrollment figures show.
In September, that jumped to where both sections were one student over the allowable maximum, but one student moved away later that month, bringing the grade closer to being in line with guidelines.
TEA regulations allow the district to submit the waiver if exceeding the maximum student-teacher ratio is unexpected. That was the case this year, said Superintendent Dr. Sharon Doughty.
The board’s alternative was to hire a teacher for one of the fourth-grade sections. While board members have said in the past they could find money for necessary teachers, no more teachers have been budgeted for the current school year.
Trustees Jay Jones and Kelly Owens voted against the board’s motion to send the waiver to Austin.
Jones, who has a child in the fourth grade, noted that the overage hit him “both in the (school) board room and at the kitchen table.”
He said he cast the “no” vote less in opposition to the waiver than as an attempt to keep the question in front of the board.
“I can’t remember ever discussing this topic since being elected to the board, and I am hopeful that my no vote will be a discussion point at our next goal planning meeting,” Jones wrote in an e-mail message to the South Jetty.
“If the majority of the board feels as I do on this subject, I have absolute confidence that our administration team will make it work.”
Owens said he voted against the waiver because he believes the board needs to decide what it thinks is appropriate as a classroom size. He said he favors adding teachers when classroom sizes reach “whatever level we decide, whether it be the state maximum or a lower number, as long as we have room in our budget … .”
Owens agreed with Jones that the administration had found a good temporary solution.
“I do not want to set a precedent of asking for a waiver every time we exceed the State maximum,” he added. “This will come up again and we need to make sure we are prepared.”
Jana Snow, who also has a child in fourth grade at H.G. Olsen, told the board that she wanted trustees to address the issue, also.
Snow said after the meeting that she would attempt to keep the topic on the board’s front burner.
“The times to really address this are at goals workshops and during budget planning,” she said.
(The board will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 25, at Cline’s Landing, 1000 N. Station St., for its first goal setting and team building exercise since the May school board election.)
The budget planning is important because if the board decides to add a teacher, that salary must be budgeted, Snow noted.
“(The board meeting) was a good opportunity to think about the future of Port Aransas ISD and what the board’s idea of class size should be,” Snow said. “The state sets the maximum at 22, but the board may want to consider even smaller class sizes, because that’s an attraction for families.”
Doughty said she met with H.G. Olsen Principal Pat Nelson and with the two fourth-grade teachers, Clare Adams and Judith Large, to ask their opinions about what was needed. That resulted in her recommendation to the board to submit the waiver, Doughty said.
Although the district hasn’t added another fourth-grade teacher to its staff, it has added another person to help, however.
Doughty said teaching strategies require the teacher to be able to work with individual students, so the board hired a certified teacher as a “permanent substitute” during the morning. The substitute will teach three writing classes while Adams teaches another three writing class and Large teaches science.
In the afternoon, the permanent substitute will be assigned as Nelson thinks necessary, Doughty said.
Doughty pointed out that enrollment at Port Aransas schools has shown no definite trend either upward or downward.
She said the district accepts students who transfer from other districts, and agreed that ending this practice would bring class sizes back down.
However, “this was not something I wanted to do in the middle of the school year,” she said.
If the district elects to continue allowing transfers, the board will be faced with hiring more teachers next year, Doughty said. She said she usually begins thinking about the next school year’s budget in December or January.
But Port Aransas doesn’t take transfer students out of the goodness of its heart. The 34 transfer students who attend Port Aransas schools contribute to the district’s average daily attendance (ADA). They mean approximately $365,000 a year to the district budget, either in funds Port Aransas doesn’t have to send to the state or in funds the state sends to Port Aransas, said Olivia Mixon, the Port Aransas ISD executive director of business and operations.
(The district won’t know the actual dollar amount until June, because that’s when the ADA figure becomes final. Until then, everything is an estimate, or moving target.)