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Austin teachers fear less planning time, increased class sizes

Monday, December 3, 2018 by Jack Craver

About two dozen teachers showed up to the Nov. 26 meeting of the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees to voice their concerns about a proposal floated by the district that would reduce the teacher-to-student ratio in middle schools and high schools.

The current district staffing guideline for secondary schools is 29 students to one teacher. A proposal submitted by the district last month would have increased it to 31 to 1. The guideline does not dictate the number of students in a classroom, but rather the total number of staff in a school.

The administration had pulled the proposal off the agenda the week before, but Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the union that represents teachers and other AISD staff, said he expects the policy to eventually re-emerge.

He and other teachers also worry that the district plans to reduce the amount of daily planning time in which teachers don’t have to be in the classroom. Currently teachers can only be assigned to the classroom six out of the eight periods in the day.

That is one idea that has been floated in ongoing conversations about cutting costs among members of the Budget Stabilization Task Force, an ad hoc group composed of teachers, administration officials, parents, students and union officials formed at the beginning of the year to discuss money-saving strategies for the district.

Eric Ramos, a teacher at Martin Middle School, said that both ideas would make it much harder for him to be an effective educator.

“Trust us when we tell you it’s not just changing two kids to a class,” he said of the potential change in classroom size.

As for a decrease in planning time, “What you’re basically telling us teachers is that we’re going to work more for the exact same pay.”

Ramos said he was skeptical of claims that budget savings couldn’t be achieved “downtown,” within the district’s large administration.

“They say downtown has no more room to cut,” he said. “If we say they have no more room to cut, then neither do our schools, neither do our classrooms.”

Melanie Sherwood, a teacher at Austin High, similarly suggested that the district was extracting savings from teachers because it wasn’t willing to play hardball in negotiations with its health insurance provider.

“You’re giving the insurance companies a 17-percent raise every year,” she said. “Do the insurance companies work harder than us? No, they give us less benefits to satisfy their corporate greed. We need you to advocate for us.”

In a statement, the district acknowledged that it continues to consider changing the staffing guidelines.

“The staffing guideline item was removed from the Nov. 26 board meeting to allow for further consideration and deliberation to the staffing formula,” read the statement. “At this time the district is assessing whether the item should be placed on a future board meeting agenda. The item was placed on the agenda initially to give additional opportunities for discussion during the board meeting.”

In fact, the district does not need the board’s approval to move ahead with either of the controversial changes. In the past, however, it has sought the backing of the board. When the district sought major teacher cuts in 2011, it successfully sought support from the board to increase the staffing ratio from 28-to-1 to its current level.

Zarifis suspects the administration submitted the plan in hopes of winning a politically helpful endorsement from the board. Recognizing it didn’t have support on the board, the administration would prefer to avoid a public rebuke and quietly implement the policy on its own later, he said.

Trustee Yasmin Wagner said she would be hesitant to second-guess the staffing guidelines put in place by the district administration. She would view that as the school board stepping out of its “governance and oversight” role and into “the place of management.”

Zarifis said that he and his members plan to keep speaking out on the issue so that the district “knows to not even start flirting with” either policy change.

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Scott Jackson.

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