SD2 looks to get right with OPI, address growing class size

2012-05-25T18:00:00Z 2012-05-25T21:11:08Z SD2 looks to get right with OPI, address growing class sizeBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Billings School District 2's accreditation status with the state Board of Public Education has been downgraded.

SD2 is listed at Step 2, one step below standard accreditation.

"This is a very big deal," said Jack Copps, interim superintendent. "This school district is going to be in trouble -- a lot of trouble -- if it doesn't come up with a plan. And frankly, it should be in trouble."

If the problem persists and the state sees no real effort by SD2 to solve the problem, the district will lose its accreditation. That means certain types of state and federal funding wouldn't be available and diplomas from the district wouldn't be recognized by most universities and trade schools.

Billings isn't the first AA school district to run into accreditation troubles because of growing class size. Helena Public Schools is currently in Step 2.

"When you have growth in any large community ... and you have difficulty getting the community to help fund that growth, you end up in these kinds of situations," said Dennis Parman, state deputy superintendent of schools.

SD2 has had trouble over the past decade convincing the community to pass its levies. Earlier this month, most recently, levies that would have funded textbooks and technology for elementary and middle schools and created a building reserve for SD2 facilities were rejected by voters.

Compounding the problem has been infighting among trustees about how to measure district growth and how to address it. Earlier this year, the board resolved to create a master facilities plan that will, in part, address some of those issues.

SD2 leaders met earlier this month with the Board of Public Education and Montana's Office of Public Instruction to address SD2's growing lower-grade classrooms.

Depending on how many teachers the district hires this summer, between 39 and 44 kindergarten classrooms will have a higher student-to-teacher ratio than what the state allows.

The state caps K-2 classrooms at 20 students. When class sizes balloon past that number, districts can face state discipline.

In all, SD2 will have anywhere between 108 and 120 K-2 classrooms above the state standard beginning this fall.

To address the concern in the short term, the district plans to hire eight new teachers this summer and reshuffle a few classrooms, which will help bring down the number of crowded classrooms by 12.

In the long term, the district is in the middle of creating a long-range facilities master plan and a district strategic plan. In addition, the district will get planning help through an award given to the city by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"If we can get these to dovetail together, that will help," said Teresa Stroebe, board chairwoman.

Aside from finding money to hire more teachers, the district has a problem with space. More and more elementary schools are running out of classrooms in which the district can put new teachers and their classes.

"It's magnifying what we have to deal with," Stroebe said.

Over the last two years, enrollment in the district's elementary schools has grown by nearly 500 students. Administrators are expecting to see another big jump this fall.

One option, Copps said, is to re-open Rimrock Elementary School -- which has already been closed by the district twice in the past decade -- and turn it into a kindergarten center again.

"That will help, but that won't be enough," he said.

The school is small -- only 12 classrooms -- which means it would hold around 240 kindergartners.

And it will be costly. The school building needs more than $1 million in renovations before it could house students and the district would have to hire a new principal and support staff, Copps said.

Stroebe is optimistic that through hiring new teachers and finishing long-term planning, the district will get back in favor with the state.

"I think it's all going to happen and fall into place," she said.

District leaders will meet with the Board of Public Education again in July to present their official plan to deal with the class sizes.

 

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