Clarifying Class Size Waivers

Following the last two Board votes on class size waivers, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting and talking with staff and community members and listening to feedback on whether the district should continue to request flexibility from the state on class sizes.  My recommendation to continue these waivers was so that our schools, as well as the district, would have maximum flexibility going into the budgeting process. For example, this would give the Board time to thoughtfully consider future Board-approved options and plans, including, but not limited to, findings in our recent equity audit, Board-approved budget parameters, and the upcoming flexibility and operating models application.

Over the past 100+ days of my superintendency, the Board and I have agreed on a course of action and set of priorities to drive the administration’s work this year.  With a clearly articulated mission and vision, clear guiding principles, and aligned operating norms, we have focused on engaging with our community and working on three major planning initiatives: our strategic planning process, our operating model decision process, and our cluster planning process.

During our first semester in APS, we’ve made significant progress and made some big decisions – and some small ones too – to stabilize the district and plan for the future. The Board voted unanimously to support a theory of action, strategic priorities and budget parameters for FY16.  Following multiple community meetings with extensive input, the Board also decided that our district would be best positioned for success if we pushed decision-making into the school level through a charter district operating model with a focus on cluster planning. This does not mean a district of individual charter schools.  What it does mean is that we could transition to a system where parents and community members are engaged in our schools at a higher level and are empowered to inform decisions with principals who would then have greater levels of staffing flexibility and autonomy around resource allocations.

With a potential charter district operating model in mind, our principals are working on their visions as a cluster, and our new human resource team is working diligently on a plan to roll out a new process where principals will have increasing levels of autonomy in how they staff their schools.  In addition, we began the analysis of our central administration expenses.  We have laid the groundwork for a multi-year central administration budget reduction strategy, all with the goal of identifying as many discretionary dollars for our schools as possible.  This will take time to work through, but we are on our way.

When I went to the Board on December 1 with the recommendation for continuing the class-size waivers that have been in place since 2011, I did so with the understanding that we all knew that this was simply granting us the same flexibility we currently have as we go into the budgeting process to make recommendations on where these discretionary dollars should be used.  The strategy was and still is to stay committed to engaging our principals, staff and community through the cluster planning process to understand their unique needs, in addition to the budget priorities the Board has already approved (early childhood, textbooks, teacher quality, HVAC repairs, positive behavioral supports, etc.) and weigh those budget requests against investing in smaller class sizes.  Having a class size waiver grants us this flexibility to consider all options, but discontinuing this waiver would effectively mean that a significant percentage, if not all, of our discretionary dollars would be required to go towards smaller class sizes without the opportunity to weigh other needs.

The Board ultimately decided Thursday night to grant that flexibility to the district in a special called meeting.  To the extent that we are able to push new (because we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence) and redirected resources into the schools with this increased flexibility, which I am committed to doing, I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs.  What I have learned about Atlanta is that a solution for one school is not always the right solution for another school, and imposing the same solutions across the board with one big brush stroke only further exacerbates the inequities that exist within our school communities, which are well-documented in the extensive equity audit.

I am aware that APS has developed a reputation over the years of not being very transparent, and I am sensitive to the fact that the decision-making process around class size waivers may raise further concerns around transparency for some. While I don’t speak for the Board, I will speak for the administration and say I am sorry for any confusion that was created in the way this was handled. Contrary to what some have suggested, however, I did not lobby the Board to change its position nor did I ask for a special called meeting.  Rather, when the Board took its original vote on class size waivers, the administration began working immediately to determine how we would provide impact information and support for the Board in implementing this decision.

I am beginning to better understand the community’s perspective of the district and also understand why there is such mistrust in our community.  I came to Atlanta aware of some of these challenges, and I remain deeply committed to continuing the level of engagement and accessibility that I have emphasized since arriving in APS.  I am committed to explaining the rationale for my decisions and listening to the perspective of others.

Moving forward, we will likely continue to have growing pains as we work to build a high-performing district and tackle the many long-standing challenges APS must address if we are going to graduate students ready for college and careers.  These issues will not be solved overnight, and clearly they were not all solvable in my first 100 days.  Yet, I remain optimistic about the future of APS if our community can remain committed to engaging in open and honest dialogue that considers what is best for all kids in APS.

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