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A common misconception about classes in San Diego Unified is that they’ve remained small in recent years, despite the budget challenges. In fact, school board president Kevin Beiser ran for re-election on his ability to reduce class sizes.

But class sizes this year are higher than they were in 2012, said Lindsay Burningham, president of the teachers union, the San Diego Education Association.

Class sizes are capped at a certain number of students, which varies by age group and school. Generally, classes are kept smaller for the youngest grades to allow teachers more one-on-one interaction with students and get bigger as kids move to high school.

Burningham said that in 2012, the average size for K-3 classes was 24 students for every teacher. Last year, that jumped to 27 to one, which violated an agreement with the teachers union. This year averages are back down a bit – but not by much – to about 25 students to every one teacher, she said.

Parents and teachers also complain this year that they’re seeing more combo classes, which are two or more age groups put together in a single class. They can result in larger classes and strain teachers by basically requiring them to prepare multiple lessons for the same class.

That’s especially difficult if English learners, students with special needs and gifted and talented students are together in one class.

So while the district can say that it’s made progress, the improvements have been slight.

In fact, said Burningham, class sizes are so large that the district could face up to $9 million in fines from the state if they don’t take one of two actions: either take steps to reduce class sizes, or seek a waiver from the union that says teachers are OK with the class sizes temporarily, as long as there’s a plan to reduce them in the future.

That waiver won’t come cheap. The union will certainly use it as a bargaining chip to help land them higher pay. SDEA clarified that 6.5 across-the-board pay raise they’ve been asking, is actually a 10.25 percent pay raise, phased in over two years.

“Yes, (the waiver is) absolutely a part of negotiations,” said Burningham. “I don’t consider holding it over San Diego Unified’s head. It’s in the best interest for both of us to reduce class sizes.”

Trustee Scott Barnett has another word for it.

“This is extortion,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this post said average class sizes for kindergartners have gone up since 2012. It was actually average class sizes for kindergartners through third graders. Last year, average class sizes in first and second grade violated an agreement with the teachers union. 

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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