Atlanta school board votes for smaller class sizes

Class sizes in Atlanta schools will shrink by an average of one student each next school year, according to a budget given final approval by the school board Thursday.

The Atlanta Board of Education voted 6-3 to pass the $595 million spending plan for the 2013-2014 school year.

The budget calls for the school system to hire 40 additional teachers who will be placed mostly in large, crowded schools in the 43,860-student district.

The new teachers will cost $3.1 million, reducing average class sizes to less than 24 students in elementary schools and 30 students in middle and high schools.

Board Chairman Reuben McDaniel said tinier class sizes can help improve students’ academic performance.

“Having a smaller, more intense class size is part of the answer,” McDaniel said.

Those who voted against the budget said even more teachers should have been added, and they were worried that too much money — $26.6 million — was being drained from the school district’s savings account to cover expenses.

“I still think it allows too much leeway for schools that are already overcrowded to get up to a number that’s uncomfortable,” said board member Nancy Meister, who was joined in opposition to the budget by Cecily Harsch-Kinnane and LaChandra Butler Burks. “I wish we could’ve gotten further today.”

A former Atlanta schools teacher, Eshe Collins, said she was happy to hear that the school board emphasized the importance of educators.

“It’s a great idea to increase teachers and reduce class sizes. It shows that our school district is moving forward,” said Collins, who attended the meeting.

Besides putting more teachers in classrooms, the budget requires hiring additional police so that there’s an officer in every school, as well as slightly later start times for middle and high schoolers.

Middle schools will start at 9:05 a.m. instead of 8:45 a.m., and high schools will start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8:15 a.m. First bell at elementary schools would continue to be at 8 a.m.

“This budget reflects that the first priority is students,” said Chief Financial Officer Chuck Burbridge. “This is a budget that listens to parents.”

The budget also forces employees to take three furlough days, eliminates a planned 3 percent bonus and leaves property tax rates at existing levels.

The school board decided against making another $1.3 million in personnel cuts because tax collections have come in about $1.5 million higher than projections, McDaniel said.

But several board members were concerned that reserve funds have been exhausted to near-critical levels.

The school district’s savings will temporarily dip below $43 million, which is near the board’s $41 million minimum, in part because the Atlanta Beltline didn’t make a $2 million payment and because of the cost of the new teachers. The reserve fund will get a boost when the better-than-expected tax collections are added Monday.

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