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Proposal could save CPS millions -- but is there a catch?

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-12 07:55:40-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Cincinnati Public Schools could save more than $11 million a year if a recent state auditor's proposal is put into place -- but local and state teacher union leaders say the plan could harm the quality of education for young students in the district.

The plan would reduce the extra compensation a teacher gets per student when there are more than 18 students in a class.

State Auditor Dave Yost included the idea as part of a financial performance audit released last week; it could give a much-needed boost to the district, which is projected to have a $243 million budget deficit by fiscal year 2019. But Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper said she doesn't think someone without a background in education should be making such recommendations.

The report recommends increasing the district’s class size limit for grades K-3 and changing how teachers are compensated when classes are overcrowded.

“It’s just disturbing to me that someone who doesn’t have an education background is making recommendations about what’s best for our children in a classroom,” Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper said. “So to look at this from just a financial point of view is problematic.”

CPS currently caps its class size at 18 students for grades K-3, which according to the auditor’s report is low compared to other Ohio urban school districts such as Toledo (28 student limit) and Cleveland (25 student limit).

When the number of students goes over that limit, a K-3 grade teacher can choose between hiring a teacher's aide to help in the classroom or receiving compensation pay amounting to $2,160 for each extra student. Toledo Public School’s extra compensation for each extra student by comparison is $750 per year.

Only 71 out of 521 K-3 classrooms are below the 18 student limit, according to Yost’s report -- most K-3 teachers in CPS receive extra pay or help from a teacher aide.

Yost suggests by raising the class size limit to the statewide district average of 27 students and compensating teachers less for extra students, the district can save funding and run more efficiently.

If CPS can raise their class size limit marginally, it could amount to significant savings, said Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute, a pro-charter school think tank.

“I think the district should keep it a goal to keep class sizes low, especially in kindergarten and first grade,” Aldis said. “But if they go one student over or two students over, it shouldn’t constitute the hiring of a new teacher or a substitute. A great teacher that can handle 18 students can handle 20 students.”

But increasing class size limits could mean fewer teacher aids would be hired to help out beyond the classroom, said Cincinnati Teacher Federation President Julie Sellers, who noted that teacher aides, or paraprofessionals, also deal with other school operations such as “recess duty."

“They do a lot of duties," Sellers said. "So for them to say ‘Oh, we can cut all of these paraprofessionals,’ they’re really not being realistic. Because who would do all of the day-to-day operational duties?”

Potential changes with the class size limit and teacher compensation system won’t begin until contract negotiations with the Cincinnati Teacher Federation start in December 2016, said Cincinnati Public Schools Public Affairs Director Janet Walsh.

But even with cost-saving measures like the ones outlined in the auditor’s report, Walsh said it might not be enough to avoid future “massive cuts.”

The district has a five-year $48 mill annual emergency levy on the ballot in November as a part of its effort to avoid a future budget deficit. If the levy passes, it would cost the owner of property valued at $100,000 an additional $5.35 a week.

Liam Niemeyer is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at liamnmeyer@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @liamniemeyer