Elementary teachers protesting outside a Mesa school district meeting Tuesday night said they could have as many as 40 kids in a class next school year if current state budget proposals go through.
"When you're talking about 38 to 40 kids in a classroom, you can't continue to provide quality education," said Andrea Sellers, a 17-year teacher who teaches second grade at Entz Elementary School.
But responding to the teacher comments on Wednesday, associate superintendent Mike Cowan said the district will not - and cannot because of its agreement with employee groups - put that many kids into regular classrooms.
"We will not fill a kindergarten classroom with 40 children," Cowan said during a meeting with Tribune writers and editors. "We are not planning to put 40 kids per classroom and we are not in a situation where we're anticipating that."
About 50 Mesa Unified School District teachers and staff members held up signs Tuesday outside the governing board room listing the number of teachers at each school who received layoff notices in April. The teachers and staff said they want to send a message to state lawmakers who are still creating a budget for next school year. Without a plan, the district had to give "reduction in force" notices by April 15 to more than 204 teachers, those in attendance said.
"We're standing in solidarity with our colleagues who (received reduction in force notices)," said Sue Azizi, a fourth-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary. "We want the Legislature to get on the ball so we can hopefully get our colleagues back."
Casey Nesbitt, a fourth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary, is one of the teachers who got a layoff notice. It is her second year teaching.
"It's been pretty hard," she said. "I've tried to be positive. I'm hoping they'll hire me back."
Nesbitt is a graduate of Mesa's Mountain View High School and attended elementary and junior high in Mesa.
In addition to the teachers, this week, nearly 78 support staff positions were eliminated, though some are positions that are vacant or will be vacant by the end of this school year.
"Brimhall Junior 2 teachers lost," "Music program 3 teachers lost," "Lowell Elementary 11 teachers" some of the signs read Tuesday night.
Darlene Sitzler, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School, echoed Sellers' comments. She said she could have as many as 40 kids in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade classroom next school year.
"I don't even have enough space in my classroom for 40 kids," she said. This year, she has 27 students in fifth grade.
She said lawmakers need to come into her classroom if she has 40 kids.
"Have them come and teach 40 kids," she said. "I'm not going to be able to do the individual attention I try to do. They won't get it. I'll be crowd control."
The Mesa Unified School District has an employee agreement with the Mesa Education Association about class size. It sets the rate of the average student-to-teacher ratio in the district.
As the governing board meeting was starting Tuesday, Will Moore, Arizona Education Association consultant to the district's employees, said in the past the district has been able to hire more teachers to keep some classes smaller. But with the budget restraints, that will not be possible next year and some class sizes will go up. However, having 40 students in an average classroom would not meet the agreement.
"That's why we're hopeful we can call back teachers," Moore said.
Cowan said during Wednesday's discussion that it's possible teachers are concerned about class size because they're hearing about the budget cuts the state is proposing and seeing cuts to teacher ranks. But the teachers also need to realize there are fewer students to be taught in Mesa.
Class sizes this year average between 26 and 30 kids depending on the grade level, Cowan said. These may vary because school performing groups such as choirs and bands could have 100 kids in them.
But the average ratio of regular classrooms next year will be similar to this year. The staffing agreement with the teachers' employee group has not changed.
"Those ratios are what we're planning on next year," Cowan said.
Shortly after the teachers and staff came into the governing board meeting on Tuesday, Janice Ramirez, assistant superintendent for human resources, announced that 95 of the 140 elementary teachers who received layoff notices will be hired back starting Monday.
That drew a loud round of applause and cheers.
Mesa Unified School District is facing a budget crunch like none it has seen in its recent past - because little is known about what the future will hold, district leaders said during the meeting.
The Mesa district could face a cut between $30 million and $60 million, depending on action by state lawmakers. With kindergarten through 12th-grade education making up 42 percent of the state's budget, and the state facing a $3.3 billion revenue shortfall next fiscal year, several proposals out of the Capitol include cuts to school budgets.
To prepare for those cuts, the district is looking at several ways to save money. Gerrick Monroe, assistant superintendent for support and business services, gave an update on the financial planning process during the meeting.
Several plans the district is working on include:
Eliminating and combining department positions.
Restructuring the teacher support model and administrator positions.
Reducing textbook and library book purchases.
Suspending professional day allocations, recruiting trips and out-of-area travel.
Eliminating or decreasing full-time positions, including some administrative, support and dean of student positions.
Eliminating overtime pay.
Adjusting counselor allocations.
The cuts presented to the governing board Tuesday evening totaled $27.6 million. The district already cut $9.6 million this year when the state took back money it had allocated. That cut will remain in place as well.
The fiscal year begins July 1. School leaders expect it to be mid- to late June before a state budget is finalized. The district is also waiting for information about federal stimulus money.
"The information to plan our budget for next year is far from decided," Monroe said. "Regardless of the final state reductions, Mesa school district will continue to provide quality, comprehensive education at all of our schools."
Superintendent Debra Duvall also noted that as well during the meeting, saying, "We are not taking cuts to art, music, technical education or athletics."
School board president Mike Hughes thanked the district leaders for their work.
"We're doing everything we can to be communicative and thorough with not only the teachers, but the parents and the students to let everyone know what we're doing to make ends meet," Hughes said.