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Cuts in Minneapolis would boost class sizes
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At Northeast Middle School, teacher Kathy Kegan has 16 students in her third hour Family and Consumer Sciences class. She says the quality of her instruction is better when classes are small. (MPR Photo by Tim Pugmire)
Budget problems could soon force the Minneapolis school district to back away from its more than decade-long commitment to small class sizes. School board members will hold the first of two public forums Wednesday on a plan to cut more than $28 million from next year's budget, including the elimination of 289 teaching jobs.

Minneapolis, Minn. — With the state facing a more than $4 billion budget deficit for the next two years, Minnesota school district leaders are trying to balance their finances with little hope of additional funding. Minneapolis is also expecting a drop in enrollment. That means a projected shortfall of more than $28 million next year.

The state's largest school district cut $32 million from this year's budget and $25 million the year before. Superintendent Carol Johnson says after closing schools and eliminating administrative departments, there are few options are left.

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Image Teacher Carla Korb

"I think we've tried everything to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," Johnson said. "But this latest recommendation that we have before the board does definitely impact class size, because at this point we feel that we've cut so many other things that we don't really have the flexibility or a lot of choices." Minneapolis school district officials have credited voter-approved tax increases as a key to helping them improve student achievement. They've used revenue generated from the levies passed in 1990, 1996 and 2000 to hire enough teachers to keep class sizes low.

The promised limits have been 19 students in kindergarten through second grade, and 25 students in grades three through eight. The average high school class size is 26 students. Johnson's budget plan would increase average class sizes by three students in all but third grade.

"We know the citizens of Minneapolis and our parents value small class sizes," Johnson said. "But when we reviewed what it would cost us to continue, we would really have to cut so many things that we couldn't sustain our regular program."

At Northeast Middle School, teacher Kathy Kegan has 16 students in her third hour Family and Consumer Sciences class. Kegan has taught in Minneapolis for three decades and remembers when her classes regularly topped 30 students. She says the quality of her instruction is better when classes are small.

"The noise level is down," Kegan said. "The one-on-one time is increased with smaller classes. I feel more connected to more students just because of less numbers."

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Image Northeast Middle School Principal Sue Thomas

In the art room down the hall, class sizes this year are 20 or fewer students. Teacher Carla Korb says she needs to give extra attention to many of her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students as they work on art projects.

"A lot of kids have great ideas, but they're just not quite sure how to bring their idea to fruition," Korb said. "And they just need a lot of times just encouragement. I mean I have a lot of kids that just suffer from that self esteem thing. They're not sure that they can do it so they're just not going to give it a try, or they're going to do the simpler idea."

Korb says she's concerned an increase in class sizes could reverse some of the district's recent progress in student performance. But Northeast Middle School Principal Sue Thomas says class size is only one factor in helping students. She says equally important is a teacher's ability to deal with behavior issues and effectively manage the classroom.

"If you are a good classroom manager, I don't think it's going to make a great difference whether you have 25 or 28 in your classroom to be quite frank with you," Thomas said. "Is it more work? Yeah. Is it harder work? Yeah. Are we capable of doing it? Yeah."

The Minneapolis school board will discuss class size increases and other budget cut proposals Wednesday at North High School and again Thursday at Folwell Middle school. The board is scheduled to vote on the recommended cuts later this month. Final action on the district budget won't come until June.

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