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Nine Harford County elementary schools need one or more teachers to meet class size caps of 25 or 30 students

Nine Harford County elementary schools need one or more teachers to meet class size caps of 25 or 30 students
A kindergarten class at the new Youth's Benefit Elementary School is shown shortly after the school opened in 2017. Youth's Benefit is one of nine elementary schools where current registration numbers show more teachers are needed to meet the school system's class size caps of 25 students in K-2 classes and 30 in grades 3-5. (MATT BUTTON AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Eleven teachers were needed at nine Harford County elementary schools as of Tuesday in order to meet the 25- and 30-student class size caps set earlier this year as part of position cuts.

“Our goal was to set firm caps, but we don’t have enough teachers to honor those caps,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said Monday. “We are looking very closely, monitoring enrollment and in some places [will] make a last-minute decision.”

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He cautioned that those numbers change often: on Monday, seven teachers were needed to meet the caps.

“It changes daily, it’s a moving target, but it’s one of those things we’re watching very closely,” Bulson told members of the Harford County Board of Education. “It’s a mix of art and science.”

In order to meet a $35 million gap between last year’s budget and this year’s, the school system adopted a budget that eliminated 108.5 positions — 84.5 of them classroom teachers. To determine where cuts would be made, school officials put caps on class size at the elementary level — 25 students for kindergarten through second-grade classes and 30 students for third through fifth grade classes.

Those caps are at or exceeded at nine schools — two have more than one grade level affected — and “a lot more are very close to the cap,” Bulson said. “We’re running everything very close to the line. It’s been an unfortunate part of the process.”

The schools include — fourth grade at Forest Lakes, third grade at Hickory and Jarrettsville, second grade at North Bend and Homestead, first grade at North Harford and Ring Factory, kindergarten and second grade at Youth’s Benefit, and second and third grades at William Paca.

“Those numbers do change daily, children are registering and withdrawing every day,” Renee Villareal, executive director of elementary education for the school system, said Tuesday. “It is a snapshot, a glimpse in time. That’s why we look at it a few times a week.”

Once classes in a grade hit 30 students, like at Forest Lakes, where both fourth-grade classes had 30 students as of Tuesday, Villareal adds them to the list of priorities.

The number of classes in a grade level varies from school to school. North Harford has two first-grade classes, while Ring Factory has three.

At each of those grade levels at those schools, the number of students don’t exceed the cap “by much" — fewer than two students, Villareal said.

“They’re just barely over, but even that ... to me, even 25 is too many for a primary class,” she said.

The more over the cap a set of classes is, the higher priority it is to find a way to reduce the size, Villareal said.

The lower grades — kindergarten through second — are the first priority.

“Our goal is to keep those below the caps first, if we can,” Villareal said. “I’d rather have third-graders at 30 than kindergarten at 30.”

The challenge is that only a limited number of positions are left, she said.

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Thirteen positions were kept in reserve in the event enrollment went beyond those caps, Bulson told school board members at their meeting Monday night.

As of Monday, 12 of those 13 positions have been assigned. One teacher has already been pulled from a school where enrollment was down from what was projected and classes were consolidated, leaving two teachers to fill slots where needed.

Pulling a teacher away from another school is disruptive and less than ideal, but when school staffing is already tight, “it’s something we need to do,” Bulson said.

Villareal has identified two other teachers who could be pulled from their schools and sent to another if necessary.

“But I don’t want to pull a kindergarten teacher from someone to give somewhere else, and four days later the [school taken from] gets more children enrolling,” she said.

Hiring teachers at this time of year can be difficult, too, and the superintendent wants to be able to assign them as soon as possible.

It’s also hard to dig into the budget to find money to fund additional positions, because “we didn’t leave a lot of room,” Bulson said.

Kindergarten presents the biggest challenge, he said. The school system knows how many students are registered, but don’t know how many more might register before school starts or even during the first week of school.

“We can be really clear on where we are at any given moment with regard to ... [knowing] who is projected to come, but then we have to look into the crystal ball to see who is not showing up,” Bulson said.

School officials keep an eye on the numbers daily, he said.

“I don’t want people to think we’re not paying attention,” Bulson said. “We know where these are, this is an everyday conversation.”

The schools were not staffed in an “overly generous way” before, he said.

“We made cuts where we thought we could,” Bulson said. “Now we’re having to monitor very closely and continue talking about how we get our classes where we need them to be.”

Ideally, all the teachers will be in place by Aug. 22, when letters will be sent to kindergarten parents and homeroom teacher information will be available on the school system’s Home Access Center.

In June, the school board adopted a $478.8 million budget for FY2019-2020, which included a $10.7 million increase from the county; Harford County funded $256.5 million of the school budget. The budget also included $5.5 million more than expected from the state.

Bulson had proposed a $467.7 million budget, including the $10 million from the county, but the school board agreed to increase its request to the county, by $5 million to $15 million, to $472.7 million. The additional $5 million, which board members said would have prevented elimination of so many positions, was not funded by county government.

Bulson’s proposal had called for eliminating 179 positions — 153 instructional, 26 administrative and 23 in the central office — to help meet the $35 million gap between FY2019 and FY2020. In approving last year’s budget, the school board used $11 million from its fund balance to balance the budget.

At the elementary level, 50 positions were proposed to be eliminated, but 13 positions were held to be added back because of enrollment and 26 positions were reinstated, for a net loss of 11 positions.

At the middle and high school level, Bulson proposed cutting 102.5 positions. The board added back two positions at Harford Technical High and the superintendent added back 27, for a net reduction of 73.5 positions.

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