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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Class size limits in city contract

Michael Brindley

A new Nashua teachers contract is signed, sealed and delivered, and one thing in the deal staying the same makes the district different from most others.

The two-year contract, approved last month, retained language that sets class size limitations, which means teachers have to be paid extra if the number of students in their classes go beyond established maximums. Such limits are the exception to the rule. A review of other teacher contracts in the area, as well as two in comparable cities, found no other such language. That includes Hudson, Merrimack, Milford, Hollis/Brookline, Manchester and Concord.

“It is rare,” said Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad. But there is a direct benefit to the school district, he argued, in that it provides a disincentive to increase class sizes beyond the state’s minimum standards.

“It certainly works in setting a limit in what we can set for class sizes,” Conrad said.

In section 8:4 of the Nashua contract, “Teaching load – Class size,” it states that the Board of Education “will make reasonable efforts to meet the minimum standards established by the New Hampshire State Department of Education.” The contract goes on to establish the maximum class sizes for different levels of education: 23 students in kindergarten; 27 students in first and second grade; and 30 students in grades three through six.

Classes in grades seven and eight and at the high schools are limited to 31 students. Physical education, band, chorus and other group teaching activities are exempt.

The contract’s class size limits are essentially in line with the state’s minimum standards, which are not law but a guideline.

If teachers are assigned students beyond those limits, the district is required to pay stipends based on a formula that gets more costly the longer students stay in the classroom and the more students there are. For the first two students over, teachers are paid three times a normal per-pupil daily rate for each day the limit is exceeded.

In the first semester of the 2010-11 school year, overage stipends to teachers didn’t add up to much. Five sixth-grade teachers at Fairgrounds Middle School received a combined $1,611.74. Each teacher had one more student than the maximum of 30 allowed.

Bob Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers Union, said the limits help to protect class size, which benefits not just the teachers, but the students and the city as well. Without the limits, the district could put three or four more students in a classroom without having any financial consequence, he said. The more students are in a class, the harder it is for teachers to make connections, Sherman said.

“By putting that ceiling in, it generally means you’ll end up with a class of 31 students at the maximum,” he said.

As students come in during the year, administrators are forced to spread students out proportionately across classrooms, ensuring equity for the students and the teachers, Sherman said.

Conrad said the district has been able to stay under the overage limits, for the most part. Where the limits can become problematic is at the high schools, where scheduling is more complicated than at the elementary schools. He didn’t want to comment on whether the requirement came up in the latest round of negotiations but said it serves a purpose.

“The concern is, we have to be sure the city understands that limitation as they think about the bottom line to our budget,” Conrad said. “It does require us to maintain a certain level of resources.”

Does the overage requirement work in keeping class sizes low? That’s difficult to quantify, but Nashua’s average class sizes in grades one through eight are all two to three students higher than the state average, according to data on the state Department of Education Web site. While the state average for grades three and four is 19 students, Nashua averaged 22 students in those grades for the 2010-11 school year.

Milford Superintendent Bob Suprenant said that although there are no class size mandates in the town’s teachers contract, the district is vigilant in making sure class sizes stay as low as possible.

“We’re committed to having appropriate class sizes,” Suprenant said. “If they ever became inappropriate, the school board would hear about it.”

The class size limits in the Nashua contract came up in 2008, when the union filed a grievance arguing that a dozen or so teachers at Elm Street Middle School were owed back pay for teaching an extra class the year before. The middle school class load requirement was reduced in the contract approved in the spring of 2008, but the union argued that the requirement should have been applied retroactively to the 2006-07 school year.

The union argued that the overage formula should be applied, which would have meant up to $49,000 in back pay for each teacher. An arbitrator sided with the Board of Education, which rejected the grievance.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.