COOS COUNTY — Five years ago, the Coquille School District realized it had a problem with class sizes. In fact, it was home to the largest classes in the state with up to 33 students.

According to Superintendent Tim Sweeney, the district school board decided to do something about it. In order to afford hiring more teachers to accommodate large student populations, the district got rid of school counselors.

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Students read by flashlight Friday in a third-grade classroom at Madison Elementary School.

Though it has recently hired those counselors back, when asked how the district would be impacted by proposed House Bill 4113 that advocates for smaller class sizes, Sweeney said, “I don’t see a direct impact. Not today because we’re working to address the problem already. We try not to play catch-up because it’s hard to do.”

The Oregon Education Association issued a press release last week on the new House bill, stating that the Oregon Legislature’s House Business and Labor Committee began work on it by hearing from bill advocates. Those advocates included prominent school leaders from educators and school board members alike.

“HB 4113 would ensure educators can advocate for students by including class size as a mandatory subject of collective bargaining negotiations,” the release stated.

Right now Oregon has the fifth largest class sizes in the nation.

“After seeing how big my daughter Kohana’s classes have been in school, I knew we desperately needed to do something in Oregon to help manage class size,” said Representative Brian Clem, one of the bill’s sponsors. “HB 4113 isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a step in the right direction. We need to put class size front and center in district negotiations. This is a flexible approach that emphasizes local, district-level conversations where educators and district leadership work side by side to find a path to smaller, more manageable class sizes to facilitate student success.”

The release cited the Oregon Department of Education’s 2016-17 Class Size Report showing nearly 20 percent of all kindergarten classes having over 26 students. Of those 444 math classes had over 36 students and 53 science classes held over 56 students.

Locally, the North Bend School District has an average of 21 students in kindergarten and between 23 and 26 students in its elementary grade levels.

“Regardless of the outcome of HB 4113, North Bend School District will continue to work with our staff as a team to meet the needs of all students, every day, every way,” wrote Brad Bixler in an email to The World, the district’s communication’s specialist.

At the Coos Bay School District, according to school board chairman Adrian DeLeon, Blossom Gulch Elementary has around 23 students per teacher and Madison Elementary holds around 19.

“Obviously it’s more difficult to manage larger classes, especially in the grade school levels,” DeLeon said. “You have children not used to a regimented schedule and trying to manage 25 kids in a classroom is a challenge. A lot of new teachers don’t receive training in classroom management and how to handle those situations, so it’s been a goal of our board to keep those classes as small as possible.”

However, every building in the Coos Bay School District is at capacity. The school board has been forced to be creative, alongside administrators and teachers, to make room for the growing amount of students versus outdated buildings. One of the things that had to be done was eliminate computer labs at the elementary level and replace the need for computers with a mobile cart holding laptop computers.

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Students read by flashlight Friday in a third-grade classroom at Madison Elementary School.

That way, students still learn needed computer skills without having a computer room.

Instead, that room can be converted into a regular classroom.

“If the House bill passes, our district would have to discuss class sizes as part of our regular bargaining process when negotiating teacher salaries and benefits,” DeLeon said. “We’re in a tight spot right now as far as class sizes go until we have new facilities with our newly passed bond measure. Even if the bill passes and we bargained lower class sizes into our teacher contracts, we have no places to put new classes right now.”

From what DeLeon has heard about the situation so far, making class sizes a mandatory subject in the bargaining process just means it has to be discussed but there is so far no specification as to what districts need to do.

“If class sizes are above bargained maximum size, teachers may get paid bonuses if that happens,” he said. “It doesn’t lower class sizes, but does cost the district.”

At the Coquille School District, the elementary grade levels hold anywhere from 21 to 24 students per class. In kindergarten, there are 18 students per class.

“The issue is if the economy hits a downturn and state funding for schools get slashed again, it is problematic if we’re tied into a class size language we can’t afford,” Sweeney said.

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Urijah Miller reads by flashlight Friday in a third-grade classroom at Madison Elementary School.

He pointed back to 2013 when the district had to get rid of school counselors in order to hire new teachers to make class sizes smaller. Though that was a hard but needed decision, he said there was an impact.

“We had students that really struggled,” he said. “Last year we had a young lady go to the state legislature and say she can’t keep doing this without emotional support.”

Sweeney explained that the Coquille Jr. and Senior High School was this student’s 8th high school she had attended due to bouncing around the foster system.

“She told the legislature they are not funding schools,” Sweeney recalled. “Now, the state has a lot of demands from doing Career Technical Education, counseling, to having small classes, all these wonderful programs they don’t fund so you pick and choose what you will get the most benefit from. The board decided on small classes five years ago.”

In response to the unnamed student’s plea, the legislature increased general funds for schools which allowed the Coquille School District to bring back counseling this year.

“In our current situation, we’re not afraid of the measure,” he said. “If we’re locked into the measure, people will lose their jobs when the economy turns. It doesn’t behoove us to lock us into something when we can only afford it during good times and not during the hard times.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.

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