Parents fear growing class sizes in Saugus schools

SIGNAL FILE PHOTO: A classroom full of kindergarteners and first graders at Rosedell Elementary School in Saugus applaud 100 year-old Wilbur Vidito Monday afternoon. Cory Rubin/ The Signal

More than 200 Saugus Union School District parents and community stakeholders have joined a new Facebook group named after their unifying cause: “Parents for Smaller Class Sizes in SUSD.”

The group was created March 29 by Mary Nieves, a parent with two young children and whose family had moved from the San Fernando Valley to Saugus a year and a half ago because she and her husband liked the school districts available here. However, after seeing one of her children go through the TK program at Charles Helmers Elementary School and her youngest about to start next year, she says she is worried and other families should be, as well.

“My daughter’s class has 28 kids in it,” said Nieves, adding that according to the California Department of Education, the average kindergarten classroom size is 22. “I was in one (upper grade) classroom that had 35 students … you could barely move.”

Nieves said she formed the group to spread awareness about how large class sizes can affect a child’s early education, give parents a forum where they can speak and hold SUSD trustees accountable in terms of how they allocate taxpayer funds.

“We’re talking about 5-year-olds … kids who still need help in the bathroom, tying their shoes or navigating their way through (social) issues,” Nieves said. “I don’t think teachers are being set up for success, and, therefore, the students are not being set up with the most successful education.”

“Yes, this is a state issue, and one of our goals is to contact our state representatives, but, at the same time, we have to hold the board accountable,” Nieves said. “I want to get as many community members and parents at these board meetings and district information meetings as possible to demand a plan of action.”

District staff, board member and teachers union

Officials at the SUSD district office said that, while they’d like to give these parents what they want, the district is expected to see a 325.55-point dip, or a $2.9 million decrease, in average daily attendance funding (ADA) — the base of all its state funding — between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years, according to a budget and projection update given to board members Feb. 19. The district’s annual general fund budget is approximately $102 million.

“We want to keep class sizes low … but this is a trend happening all over the state,” said SUSD Superintendent Colleen Hawkins. “The more students in a class, the less teachers you need. But the less students you have, the less staff you can have.”

While the district is attempting to take steps to communicate more with parents, through social media pages and the recent “State of the District” series by Hawkins, they are also trying to balance the interests of a number of stakeholders.

Hawkins said Wednesday that issues such as affordable housing, state funding mechanisms, mandated expenses, special education and ongoing labor negotiations all play a role in the budget allocations, many of which are outside of the district’s control.

“They all work together in creating this issue,” Hawkins said. “And any school district’s budget is somewhere between 80-85 percent in costs of human beings. I just can’t look at something and say, ‘We’re going to cut that.’”

SUSD Board President Julie Olsen said the district is in deficit spending, meaning the district is spending more money than it has while also maintaining its programs and payrolls.

“There’s the rising costs of services and we’re receiving the same level of funding per pupil that we were in 2007,” Olsen said. “We’re really having to stretch those dollars really far, (but) the board wants to be able to fairly compensate staff and still ensure a great education for the kids.”

Both Olsen and Hawkins urged parents upset with the current predicament of school funding to contact their local state representatives and ask them to support “Full & Fair Funding” for California schools.

“We’re set with our current ratios (of 28 students for every one teacher or 31 students for every one teacher) but any changes in the future will be driven by state funding, enrollment and labor negotiations,” said Olsen, who declined to predict if class sizes would be increasing in the coming years. “An increase to our base funding would really help.”

Saugus Teachers Association President Debbie Rocha said that, while parents and teachers both mutually want smaller class sizes, she urges parents to understand the budget better before making accusations regarding spending.

“Money that is being spent on textbooks can’t go to offset those class sizes, and money set aside for facilities cannot either,” said Rocha. “But, we still need to make sure we keep the cuts out of the classroom.”

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