School Superintendent responds to comments on teacher pay, pupil-teacher ratios

Pulaski County’s school superintendent responded Tuesday to comments made last week by county officials concerning teacher pay and pupil-teacher ratios.

Last week, with the School Board present, the county Board of Supervisors met to finalize its level of local school funding for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

During their presentation, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet and Supervisors Chairman Andy McCready made comments concerning the pupil-teacher ratio for both Pulaski and Montgomery counties.

Sweet said he chose Montgomery County to compare Pulaski County with because “that seems to be the jurisdiction of choice in comparing teacher salaries and – really – comparing our school divisions.”

Both Sweet and McCready cited figures for both counties from the State Department of Education website for grades K-7, which showed Montgomery with a higher pupil-teacher ratio of 17.18 students to one teacher compared to Pulaski County’s ratio of 10.79 to one.

“It looks like the (Pulaski County) School Board values pupil-teacher ratios over teacher pay,” Sweet said last week.

Applying Montgomery County’s pupil-teacher ratio here, Sweet said, would mean Pulaski County would need 89 fewer elementary teachers. Money saved from having fewer teachers could be re-invested back into student achievement, school safety and teacher raises.

McCready suggested school officials act to equal Montgomery’s pupil-teacher ratio, and then it could “easily afford” to give teachers here a 10 percent raise instead of the 3 percent they will get next year.

Noting the School Board is the only governing body that can change pupil-teacher ratios, McCready said, “The only thing we’re waiting to see is do they (School Board members) have the intestinal fortitude to do it.”

During a final budget work session Tuesday, School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers offered statistical comparisons of the Pulaski and Montgomery school divisions.

Siers noted, however, that school officials are told not to read too much into the figures found on Superintendent Reports posted on the State Department of Education website due to variances in how figures are reported.

“They are not an accurate reflection of what each county is doing,” Siers said.

Siers said Pulaski County’s K-7 pupil-teacher ratio is 10.79 and Montgomery’s is 17.8, as the county officials said. However, in middle and high school the local ratio is 11.28 and Montgomery’s is 9.33.

Siers said there are several reasons for the disparity in elementary data.

For one, he said, Pulaski County has a special education population of 15.1 percent, while Montgomery is at 10.4 percent.

“This means we have a need for more special education teachers at each school than Montgomery,” Siers said.

In Pulaski County, 93 percent of elementary students are served in schools that are eligible for federal Title 1 funding, Siers said, while in Montgomery only 67 percent attend Title 1 schools.

“These additional federal funds allow us to offer a variety of support services in reading and math,” Siers said. “We receive approximately $1 million in these funds and choose to use the money to hire Title 1 teachers. Montgomery County uses their funds for personnel, reading recovery programs and professional development.”

Siers said the county employs three Title 1 teachers at four elementary schools along with one reading specialist.

He said Pulaski County also participates in a K-3 class size reduction program for high poverty schools, which allows the county to receive over $600,000 in additional state money if class sizes in those grades are kept smaller than average. He said Montgomery also participates in the program, but for a smaller percentage of its schools.

“This requires us to employ more teachers to keep these class sizes low,” Siers said.

The primary reason for the disparity between counties, Siers said, is Pulaski County reports all teachers assigned to grades K-7, including special education, art, music and Title 1 teachers, while Montgomery only reports the classroom teachers.

“It’s just a difference in how data is reported to the state,” Siers said.

Siers continued that, even given the differences in reporting, the disparity between elementary pupils per teacher is offset in the bigger picture by the fact Pulaski County has more students per teacher in secondary grades.

“If we used the same calculation and reporting method as Montgomery, we would have a ratio of over 17.5 students per teacher,” Siers said.

“The County Administrator’s suggestion that we eliminate 89 positions amounts to a 40 percent reduction in force in K-7 teachers, and would cause average class sizes to swell to more than 30 students, and probably closer to 40 per class,” Siers stated.

He said it would also cause the reduction or elimination of art and music programs, a loss of over $600,000 in funds gained for keeping class sizes low, a reduction in services for students with disabilities, and the elimination of Title 1 reading programs for struggling students.

“Last week we were asked to develop the intestinal fortitude to cut 89 positions, but that wouldn’t require intestinal fortitude. That would require student cruelty and would not be beneficial to the children of Pulaski County,” Siers said.

Siers also offered other comparisons between Pulaski and Montgomery counties, such as:

  • Average teacher salary – PC = $45,169, MC = $51,911
  • Percentage of local revenue dedicated to schools – PC = 39%, MC = 56.5%
  • Approximate per-pupil expenditure (with debt service as a factor) – PC = $10,800, MC = $11,800

Siers said Pulaski County Schools would receive over $4 million more in funding if it were funded at the same rate as Montgomery County.

Siers also noted that while Pulaski County Schools has lost 641 students since 2009, it also has 43 fewer teachers than in 2009, falling from 381 to 338.

“That averages out to one less teacher for each 15 students that we have lost through our declining enrollment,” Siers said.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot

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