Calgary Catholic school class sizes to grow this fall

After 15 years of almost steadily shrinking class sizes, forecasted job losses will force classes to grow in the Calgary Catholic School District this fall.

Calgary Catholic trustees were presented with data on the district’s pupil-teacher ratio for the past 17 years on Wednesday as part of an overview of the separate board’s proposed $440-million budget for the next school year.

It indicates the strain on class sizes was at its peak in 1994, when there was an average of one teacher for every 19.81 students in grades 1 to 12.

Since then, the number of students per teacher has nearly continuously dropped.

It now sits at roughly one instructor for every 16.21 Calgary Catholic students, excluding kindergarten classes.

The statistics show that 2002 and 2005 were the only times during this period when the number of students for each teacher increased district-wide over the previous fall.

But that’s about to happen again this September.

The district is expecting the same number of students in Calgary Catholic schools.

However, their overall complement of 2,500 teachers is set to fall by 85.8 full-time equivalent teaching positions.

As a result, the teacher-pupil ratio for grades 1 to 12 students will rise to 16.6 students per instructor in 2011.

"Were trying to balance financial responsibility with what’s best for kids. It’s a bit of a teeter-totter at times, but we’re trying to keep it as balanced as we can," said Calgary Catholic School District superintendent of finance John Deausy.

The increase expected this fall would still keep the pupil-teacher ratio in line with the district average over the past five years, he noted.

Trustee Linda Wellman was glad to get a glimpse of how job reductions could affect schools.

"I think it tells a story. Despite everything, I think it says volumes when we look at our budget and we look at where our dollars can be most effective.

"We’re doing as much as we can to make sure (budget cuts) don’t have an impact on the classroom," said Wellman.

It has been a good sign to see overall pupil-teacher ratios decline, but the statistic is not the clearest indicator of what is happening in the classroom, said David Cracknell, president of the Calgary Catholic Teachers’ Association.

The formula counts every principal, assistant principal, resource teacher or school counsellor as if they had their own class — instead of these individuals supporting classroom teachers.

"It would be tough to find the class with 16 students or less," said Cracknell.

He would like to see a firm cap set for class sizes, with no more than 25 students permitted in any classroom.

Cracknell would like the government to rethink recently changed class size reduction grants that now only target kindergarten to Grade 3 students and some high school career courses.

"What is undeniable is that students in grades 4 to 12 also benefit in terms of smaller classes," said Cracknell.

The prospect of larger class sizes loomed large over the weekend as 450 teachers and other education groups gathered in Calgary.

The Calgary Board of Education won’t unveil its proposed budget until Tuesday, but has already indicated it will have to cut up to 165 full time positions, through attrition, use up its savings and still run a $10.4 million deficit.

Job losses will mean less teachers, less support staff and larger classes, said Calgary Public Teachers’ Association president Jenny Regal.

If remaining teachers must assume more work to try to meet the needs of more students, it will also lead to higher stress loads and fewer extra curricular opportunities because there are only so many hours in a day, Regal said on the weekend.

Parents across Alberta are already quizzing their principals about what staffing levels at individual schools will look like next year, said Alberta School Councils’ Association president Marilyn Sheptycki.

"They’re very fearful as to what might happen and very concerned about how the changes may affect their child," she said.

While job cuts and rising class sizes are far from ideal, school boards say they have little choice when faced with their new fiscal reality.

The Calgary Catholic School District is expecting to receive $422.7 million in funding next year, $4.3 million less than in its current budget — even though expenses are set to rise to $440.2 million for 2010-2011.

The province’s refusal to cover a nearly three per cent wage increase due to all teachers, and a change in class size reduction funding, account for the drop in cash coming to the board.

To make up for the $17.5-million funding gap, the district plans on using all its remaining $11.8 million in savings, cutting 85.8 full-time equivalent jobs through attrition and running a $3.7-million deficit.

But the prospect has them concerned. "Use of these funds will eliminate the financial safety net should there be any unforeseen changes during the budget period," the report to trustees warned.

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