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Latest APS Idea: Bigger Class Sizes

FOR THE RECORD: Due to incorrect information provided to the Journal, this story reported that Ernie Pyle Middle School has been awarded a federal school improvement grant. Ernie Pyle has applied, but the grant recipients have not yet been named.

By Hailey Heinz
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          With proposed layoffs for double dippers off the table, Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks proposed a new batch of cuts Wednesday to make up for the $5 million the district had hoped to save with the layoffs.
        Among the ideas that moved up the list was a 2 percent increase in class sizes, which Brooks projected would lead to eliminating about 90 teaching positions and save about $4 million a year.
        In an effort to close a $43 million budget gap, Brooks had at one time proposed laying off about 176 employees who had retired and then returned to work, collecting both a salary and a pension. That idea, although popular with the school board, has since been scrapped because of limited cost-effectiveness, legal concerns, and because hard-to-fill jobs are often staffed by rehires.
        Brooks said the budget is a "work in progress" and reiterated at Wednesday's board meeting that he hopes most personnel cuts can be made without layoffs.
        "Based on past history, it would appear to me that we can take care of the lion's share of this through attrition," Brooks said.
        Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein has consistently opposed increasing class sizes.
        "That should be the absolute last thing that's considered," she said, adding that larger class sizes make it harder for teachers to reach every student.
        Although a 2 percent increase would have a different impact at each school, it would roughly mean one additional student per class.
        Brooks' latest plan is part of a budget process that began in earnest last month and has gone through numerous drafts and iterations.
        Some board members expressed frustration Wednesday, saying that the community was "confused" by all the changes.
        Brooks acknowledged that the plan changes from day to day as his staff works to find the best solutions to the budget shortfall.
        "I don't think we're flip-flopping," Brooks said. "As I've told the board, this is a process." He added that his staff is aiming for openness, allowing the board and the community to see each draft of the budget in the works.
        The board approved a preliminary budget two weeks ago that included 6.5 percent cuts to nonschool departments, 1.5 percent cuts to school budgets, 30 percent cuts to school discretionary budgets and two-day furloughs for administrators, among other reductions.
        Those proposed cuts have remained unchanged for weeks, and Brooks said the early draft had to be passed so principals and department heads would know how much to cut and begin making plans.
        Brooks suggested several other new cuts Wednesday, among them ending a $2 million internship program through the University of New Mexico.
        The program places UNM education students in APS classrooms as paid teachers. Brooks said the program has merit but is too expensive in the current budget situation.
        "We would much rather preserve our own staff than preserve the internship," he said.
        Another proposal calls for consolidating administrators at alternative schools or small elementary schools. Brooks said this would not mean closing schools, but could mean a single principal might head two small schools. He added that certain small alternative schools might also be asked to share facilities, and estimates about $500,000 a year can be saved this way.
        Brooks also said APS could save about $300,000 by using federal stimulus funds to pay the stipends that Ernie Pyle Middle School teachers are receiving this year. Teachers at Ernie Pyle and Rio Grande High School each received a $5,000 stipend as part of a turnaround effort. In turn, the teachers signed commitment letters promising extra time and effort.
        Those stipends had been paid from the operating budget, but Ernie Pyle was recently awarded a federal school improvement grant. Brooks said that grant can be used to pay the stipends.

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