The UFT contract gives principals the first ten school days of a semester to lower oversize classes. After that, the chapter leader grieves (I filed for 83 oversize classes for Jamaica High School) and a month later there is a hearing at the American Arbitration Association in Manhattan. It would be easy to assume that a month and a half is sufficient time to reduce all classes in a high school to the contractual limit of 34 pupils in a class. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen at Jamaica or many other schools that were also grieving oversize classes.
At the hearing this morning, the principal, who is represented by a DOE lawyer, said he can't fix many of the oversize classes. I don't think there is enough space to start new classes in part because two new schools opened inside our building that now occupy many rooms. But that is not the argument administration made. The DOE lawyer asserted over and over the half class size loophole in the contract as justification for oversize classes.
Remember the class size limit is 34 for high schools so a half class would be 17 or less. Without 18 additional pupils in a subject area, DOE can claim there aren't enough students to start a new class. Therefore, in reality the half class exception allows for class sizes to go as high as 51 in a New York City High School although an arbitrator several years back did limit its use. As of today we still have a subject class with 48 at Jamaica and almost 50 classes remain oversize. This cannot be justified and yet the DOE lawyer repeatedly asserted the half class exception and the arbitrator in response asked the DOE to do their best to fix the problem or otherwise he implied he would allow the half class exemption.
It was so bad that DOE even utilized the half class clause when there were two English as a Second Language classes, one had 35 students and the other had 18. Anyone could resolve this as all DOE had to do was move one student from the class of 35 to the class of 18. That’s simple, right? No, because they meet in different periods so administration claimed that resolving this problem would cause massive disruptions in programs. Therefore, they had to use the half class exception. The arbitrator, to my astonishment, seemed to accept this logic and when I objected the UFT District Representative saw the arbitrator getting a little angry at me so after a pro forma protest, the UFT moved the proceedings ahead.
DOE is not supposed to use the half class exception as a rule but that is exactly what they did. In addition, establishing a precedent that they are abusing the exception takes years.
At overcrowded Francis Lewis High School an arbitrator said administration had to stop using the exceptions allowed in the contract as a rule. This happened last school year but even then the UFT still had to go to court to force DOE into compliance and it didn't happen until this school year. My guess is next year Lewis will go back to normal and there will be many oversize classes again. At a school like Jamaica that has a much greater percentage of at risk students compared to Lewis, we have a huge problem with students being discharged. Unfortunately, administration can use this to their advantage in the class size reduction process.
Administration over-booked the classes, as they have for a number of years and then they will wait for student attrition to bring class size down for the spring when it will be in compliance with the contract. In the end, the UFT can never say that the exception has become the rule. Therefore, we have no remedy for oversize classes. At the arbitration today the UFT showed last fall’s award where the administration used the half class exception. The arbitrator seemed to ignore it.
It should be noted that our school has no Pupil Accounting Secretary in our Attendance Office so it is inevitable that we will lose pupils. Pushing kids out is no way to solve the oversize class problem but attrition is why we can't prove a pattern of oversize classes as high schools are still technically organized on a semester basis twice a year.
Sadly, the real losers in this silly game are the kids who are stuck in oversize classes until they can't take battling for a seat every day and so they stop attending class.
This problem could be easily resolved by putting an absolute cap in the contract but the UFT won’t even demand this kind of modest class size reduction. The DOE agreed to lower class sizes to around 25 in the high schools to settle the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit but they won't even enforce an absolute cap of 34 on their principals. Of course, DOE will still always blame the teachers when things go wrong in a school.
They will more than likely soon claim it’s our fault that at risk students can't learn in a class of 48 at Jamaica so they will probably try again to close the school and start another new small school. The new small school will then be provided sufficient funding for them to have class sizes capped in the twenties and then the DOE will declare that there is more proof that new small schools are better when scores improve. Meanwhile the next generation of at risk pupils will be moved to the next schools targeted for closure to be packed in oversize classes.
What is so frustrating is how the DOE continues to get away with abusing the class size limits. I saw this farce with my own eyes today.