The budget crunch brought on by the way South Carolina now funds public education will likely mean more students in many classes across the district.
Fort Mill School District officials project a need for 50 new teachers next year to keep pace with a growing student body, but there's only enough money in the budget to hire 34. They said the state's new funding formula, based on a statewide penny sales tax increase rather than local residential property taxes, leaves the district with $2.2 million less for the coming year than it would have had under the old system.
"What we're faced with is allowing some creepage in the student/teacher ratios," Assistant Superintendent Chuck Epps said. "We anticipate it will be higher at some grades if the enrollment trends hold up."
The larger class sizes will likely impact core subject classes, while many of the more specialized classes - mostly at the high school level in the career clusters - are not likely to change, at least this year, according to Epps and Superintendent Keith Callicutt.
"It will be minimal this year," Callicutt said.
Act 388, passed by the S.C. Legislature last year, forced the funding changes on every school district in the state. The biggest problem with the legislation, Callicutt said, is that it uses the state's average growth rate - 1.8 percent this year - to calculate what each district gets in terms of funding. That leaves fast growing districts like Fort Mill, which grew by 10.1 percent this year, at a disadvantage.
"What we've done [for 2008-'09] is a stopgap measure. If nothing changes with Act 388, going forward, the consequences will be dire," he added. "We will open two new schools the following year, the value of a mill is down, our needs are ever increasing based on growth, and our revenues are ever decreasing."
State law allows class sizes of up to 35 students per teacher, not counting special needs education, which is regulated under different rules.
"We don't even ever flirt with that number," Epps said.
Currently, class sizes average 20 to 21 students per teacher in kindergarten through second grade, 22 to 23 per teacher in third through fifth grades, 25 to 26 per teacher at the middle school level, and 26 to 28 per teacher at the high school level, according to Epps.
"From our perspective we have a lot of quality initiatives in place, and that support will allow our ratios to increase some," Epps said. "But when you get into the mid and high 20s in elementary schools it is difficult."
Reading recovery teachers at the elementary school level is one example of the quality initiatives. Teachers trained in reading strategies for weak readers work with students in small groups or one-on-one to improve their reading skills.
"It's a labor intensive approach to students with deficiencies," Epps said. "The bright kids will always score well; A strategy of helping the low achieving students score well helps the district overall."
Teachers across the district agree that larger class sizes are not desirable. The Fort Mill Times received e-mailed responses from a number of teachers on the issue. Here's what a few of them had to say:
"Fort Mill is known for its quality of education and part of the reason this quality exists is because of low teacher/student ratios." Fort Mill Middle School teacher Treva Hamlin wrote. "We are able to individualize instruction and get to know students' needs on a level that would not be possible with a larger class size. Getting to know students on a more personal level also prevents and/or improves disciplinary issues, which in turn strengthens the learning environment. Keeping class sizes down is a critical issue for our school district and one that our superintendent considers a top priority amidst budget issues."
Fort Mill High School teacher Patrick Lyons wrote, "I believe that the Fort Mill School Districts tradition of excellence is due to strong school board/administrative support for education, and great teacher-student ratios. In smaller classes, students get much more individual attention and support. You can see this every day in our great Fort Mill Schools. I'm afraid that large class sizes will have a negative impact on student learning, and make Fort Mill an average district. Let's hope that our representatives in the State House revisit the funding issue and do the right thing."
Brenda Stewart, who teaches art at Fort Mill Middle School , wrote, "I think the most important aspect of smaller classes is the individual attention that can be given to the students. Since I teach art it is imperative to give council to each student as a project progresses. With larger classes it becomes harder to give this attention to our students.
"It takes more time to assess students work, keep records, and stretches our materials/resources to the limit. In large groups, some students command more time and attention while less assertive students may have to wait to be helped. A larger group can make it hard for some to concentrate and therefore puts pressure on the teacher to develop a larger variety of teaching styles to accommodate the range of students."