Classroom Size

Kayla Wilcox helps third-grade students with long-division problems at Verda James Elementary School in Casper in April 2013. In June, the School Facilities Commission increased class sizes for future construction projects, a move that's drawn criticism from educators.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Lawyers for the Wyoming Education Association sent a letter to state officials earlier this month alleging that their recent move to increase class sizes was illegal.

"It is totally inappropriate for the (State Facilities) Commission to change statutorily established class sizes without waiting for the outcome of the study and legislative action," Patrick E. Hacker, of Hacker, Hacker and Kendall, wrote. " ... Whether or not the Commission agrees with the prevailing educational research and opinions of educators and parents, the procedure by which the Commission acted is unlawful and the decisions made are legally invalid." 

The association says that the State Facilities Commission's June decision to increase the number of students who can be in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms to 25 is inconsistent with previous court cases and was done in a manner that allowed for no public input. The group further contends the changes occurred before the results of a broad study of the state's education system were completed by consultants.

"The SFC's arbitrary use of the new 25 student class size amounts to an inappropriate work-around of the Legislature's authority and is a violation of established law," the WEA wrote in a press release. 

The criticism that state facilities officials were working around the Legislature was leveled by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, at a meeting late last month. He said the commission's decision threatened to make lawmakers' work "pointless."

In late June, the School Facilities Commission -- the officials who oversee school construction in Wyoming -- approved the adjustment as a policy change, rather than through the rule-making process that would have included public input. While the change doesn't mandate that schools bump up their class sizes, it does mean that any buildings constructed in the future will have fewer classrooms than existing schools, which have lower-grade classrooms built on a 16-to-1 ratio.

School facilities officials have said the change is to maximize square footage and isn't an attempt to force districts into increasing their class sizes. A spokesman for the State Facilities Division declined to comment on the letter or its contents and said it had been passed on to the Attorney General's Office.

A message seeking comment from Attorney General Peter Michael, who handles all press inquiries for the office, was not returned. 

Kathy Vetter, the president of the WEA, said the classroom change would have a detrimental effect on student learning.

"If they build to this, you may be in a school, but you’re going to have a much larger class size and not receiving that same quality education as those students in other schools," Vetter said.

The change is a cost-saving measure intended to maximize Wyoming's schools as the state moves away from building facilities to preserving them. Over the past several years, the state has spent more than $3 billion building and maintaining its growing number of school facilities. More than $2 billion of that money came from coal lease bonuses, which, in the wake of the recent economic downturn, have dwindled to nothing. 

As a result, the state faces a nearly $200 million shortfall for construction and maintenance in the coming two-year budget cycle. To cope with the loss of revenue, officials are moving toward preserving the current square footage.

But the commission's move to increase class size isn't the correct way to go about that, Vetter and the WEA said.

"As a result of the SFC's decision, students who attend schools that accommodate the legislatively established 16:1 class size ratio will get a different and better education than those students who will attend school in buildings that were built to provide capacity for the much larger 25:1 class sizes," the organization said in the press release.

"Treating schools differently on class size because of cost-cutting goals is not justification for the resulting unequal treatment and decreased educational opportunity for students."

In September, facilities officials reminded lawmakers that they had taken action to partially roll back the required 16-to-1 classroom ratio. In March, the Legislature passed a bill that eliminated the mandate that districts who weren't meeting that ratio -- which is often not met but is the level at which the state funds schools -- file paperwork to receive a waiver. 

But, Rothfuss and others have pointed out, the state still expects that 16-to-1 ratio and pays schools so they can strive to meet it. Vetter said the commission's actions will make it harder for districts to do that.

She noted that the change was made just as lawmakers had hired a consultant to take a broad look at Wyoming's education system, a process known as recalibration. That review will almost certainly look at classroom size, and she and others have warned that the work of adjusting that ratio should be left not only to the Legislature but specifically to the recalibration committee. 

That's at least partially because adjusting classroom size can have a significant effect not only on student learning but also on funding. At the late September legislative meeting, school finance expert Matt Willmarth told lawmakers that if classrooms were funded at 19 to 1 instead of 16 to 1, it would mean a $44 million cut and the loss of 589 teachers. If it were 20 to 1, the reduction would be $57 million and 745 teachers.

School Facilities Division director Del McOmie and commission chairman Bryan Monteith told lawmakers last month that they expected schools to continue working to provide the 16-to-1 ratio anyway, despite the change to construction standards. But Rothfuss said the change would make that harder going forward.

"We’ve heard anecdotally from many districts that they’d like to go closer to 16 to 1, but the reason they don’t is they can’t," he replied. "They don’t have enough classrooms.”

Rothfuss and Vetter both suggested that the move might have been made to dictate policy as the recalibration committee's consultant begins its work. Monteith denied that charge to lawmakers, but Vetter said she was still concerned.

"This could influence possibly (Augenblick, Palaich and Associates), our consultants that are doing recalibration," she said. "It could definitely influence opinion of some of our elected officials. It is really just a cost-saving measure without looking at how it affects quality of education our children receive."

Vetter didn't say that the association had an intention to sue the SFC. The letter comes several months after a number of large school districts passed resolutions allowing them to file suit against the state should they feel budget cuts have gone too far.

The boards' movements then -- and the WEA's letter now -- were the latest piece of legal maneuvering in Wyoming's educational history, which has been thoroughly shaped by court battles. The current system was created after a series of cases that began in the mid-1990s, which are commonly known as the Campbell decisions.

One of the WEA's attorneys -- Patrick Hacker -- was one of the lawyers on the original Campbell case.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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