Education

Teacher shifting rankles parents. School district says the moves help balance class sizes

Tacoma Public Schools, led by Superintendent Carla Santorno (seen here), has received some criticism recently for shifting teachers among schools. School officials say the moves are necessary to balance class sizes across the district.
Tacoma Public Schools, led by Superintendent Carla Santorno (seen here), has received some criticism recently for shifting teachers among schools. School officials say the moves are necessary to balance class sizes across the district. Staff file, 2016

Nearly 20 teachers in Tacoma elementary schools changed grades or schools this week to help balance out class sizes for the year, a shift that district officials say is routine but has frustrated some parents who are losing teachers to other schools.

The changes, announced Monday, happened because of a gap between the number of students the district predicted would enroll at each school and how the actual enrollment shook out.

Teachers are initially assigned based on projections at each school but may be reassigned elsewhere to account for schools with more or fewer students than expected.

District spokesman Dan Voelpel said 12 elementary teachers switched schools and seven are teaching other grades at their same school.

Voelpel said such shifts happen “every year” and the number of teachers on the move this time is “in line with past experience.”

Still, this year’s moves have rankled some parents. Common objections posted on the district’s Facebook page were that the district should have communicated the shuffle better and should hire more teachers to avoid the changes.

Voelpel said the district can’t afford to hire more teachers — an issue officials blame in part on massive changes to school funding the Legislature made this year as a response to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

The high court said the state was not meeting its obligation to fully fund public schools and must take on the full cost of paying teachers and other school employees. Those people have been paid, in part, through local school district property-tax levies in recent years.

The Legislature is pumping billions into the K-12 system to address the ruling. But lawmakers also plan to restrict how much school districts can raise in local levies for education.

As a result, Tacoma school officials say the district expects to get about $4 million less in the 2018-19 school year. Tacoma schools already plan to use $5 million in reserves to pay for expenses this year.

The plan from the Legislature also says local levy money can’t be used for teacher salaries and other basic education costs.

“Tacoma Public Schools would have a better financial future if the Legislature had not made any changes in the funding formula for education,” the district said in an August statement.

Money issues aside, many parents complained they were surprised by the teacher shifts and had little notice they were coming.

Voelpel explained that the district let individual schools announce the moves initially, instead of communicating more broadly through headquarters. He added the changes came as a shock to some parents at schools where enrollment is usually predictable.

That was the case at Browns Point Elementary, where parents were notified by letter from the school’s principal Monday that a third-grade teacher there is headed to another school with higher-than-expected enrollment.

A fifth-grade teacher is expected to teach the third grade at Browns Point, meaning some fifth-grade students will be absorbed into other classes, according to the letter.

Liz Sawyer, a parent with a fifth-grade student at Browns Point, said the district should have let parents know and not relied on individual schools to distribute the information. She said the strategy was not transparent enough.

“There were no parents notified about this particular change” by the district office, Sawyer said.

The district did eventually post information about the shift on its website, including a Frequently Asked Questions page. Voelpel said in hindsight the district should have communicated more broadly and “let families know a lot earlier” about the changes.

He also pointed out the teacher shifts are good for some schools with large class sizes.

“Just remember: 12 schools are getting new teachers to help with overcrowding,” Voelpel said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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