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Overcrowding draws ire of parents

School board hears from many upset over large class sizes


Emotions ran high Monday night as the topic of large classroom sizes dominated the Forest Grove School Board meeting.

More than two dozen parents and teachers attended the meeting, many of them speaking before the board to voice their discontent with student overcrowding and the prospect of consolidating kindergarten classes at Harvey Clarke Elementary School.

Stephanie Vasquez was in tears as she told the board it is too disruptive to shift around small children and force them to change teachers once the school year has begun.

“I’m really scared for my kids,” Vasquez said. “You’re not thinking about the long-term outcome.”

Vasquez, a longtime Forest Grove resident who attended school in the district, has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in third grade at Harvey Clarke. She said many of the low-income families who send their children to the school struggle to find time to contribute to their children’s educations and that increasing class size to more than 30 students would provide them with little more than day care.

“I know how hard the teachers work,” Vasquez told the board. “When we have massive classes ... you are perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who can’t afford it.”

Craig Connell echoed Vasquez’s sentiments, describing his kindergarten-age son as a “special needs” student. Crowded rooms at Harvey Clarke and readjusting to new teachers would be detrimental to his son’s education, he said.

“I don’t want his experience to be something he has to be afraid of,” said Connell.

Board members and administrators attempted to quell concerns.

“We are facing a really wrenching thing,” said board chairman John Hayes. “We understand that and appreciate it.”

In his enrollment report to the board, Assistant Superintendent John O’Neill said there are strategies in place to bring down class sizes, but acknowledged it is a work in progress.

“As you can see, we have a few problems to fix,” O’Neill said. Proposed changes at Harvey Clarke would reduce the number of half-day kindergarten classes from four to three. This would significantly increase their size, but would free up a half-time teacher who would shift to the school’s fourth grade to alleviate three fourth-grade classes bowing under the weight of 35 to 36 students each.

O’Neill said the school district budgeted for elementary classroom sizes of 29 in 2012-13. However, that number is higher in many classrooms across the district. O’Neill said the district is dedicated to using existing resources as much as possible to solve the overcrowding problem.

Outside funding sources could also provide money for more teachers. Gain Share — a program that waives local business property taxes to provide additional state funding — is an option, but the school district has yet to receive its share of the money, said business manager Mike Schofield, who contributed to O’Neill’s report.

Schofield said the primary problem is the district’s fluctuating enrollment. Teachers have not been placed in classrooms because principals are uncertain of how many students they will have, he said.

Forest Grove’s migrant population is unpredictable and is difficult to forecast during budget development, O’Neill said. The shifting of teachers and students is done in response to larger-than-predicted enrollment, while immediate funding is based on original forecasting.

Board member Fred Marble acknowledged this Catch-22 when he said the board cannot hire new teachers without considering the budget shortfall it will create later in the year.

“We can’t budget funds we don’t have,” Marble said.

O’Neill said the Oct. 1 enrollment report will be more accurate and will help solidify classroom decisions, but he also said it will result in a larger number of students at Forest Grove High School than previously predicted.

Not everyone in the room was satisfied with the district’s explanation. District budget committee member Quentin Crain admonished the board for what he considers poor planning.

“We have spent money in other places that could have been spent on teachers,” said Crain, who has two children attending Forest Grove schools.

Crain identified the purchase and distribution of iPads to students at Neil Armstrong Middle School, which cost the district about $494,000 over two years, as a questionable use of funds.

The iPad program to allow students to take home tablet computers was scheduled to begin Monday, but was postponed for technical reasons.

“There was an Apple update that has created challenges,” said Neil Armstrong math teacher Osvaldo Garcia-Contreras, who addressed the issue during the meeting and outside board chambers.

The launch of Apple’s iOS 7 on Sept. 18 resulted in changes to the tablet’s interface and operating system. Garcia said this created security risks the school wants to mitigate before distributing the iPads.

“We don’t want students to start an (Internet) search and go into something harmful,” Garcia said.




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