OTTUMWA — Classroom sizes continue to be a concern in the Ottumwa School District. On Monday, Superintendent Mike McGrory offered some data on the topic, saying recommendations on how to address the issue will be coming later in the month.

“One of the things that came up in our open enrollment research are two of the highest concerns from our staff and parents were class sizes and also lack of resources in the classroom,” McGrory said. “What we decided to do is really focus on gathering information on our class sizes. We also did an additional survey to find out exactly what are some of the resources lacking in the classrooms.”

In his presentation to the board, he said that the numbers on classroom sizes go back a few years because the numbers for 2020-21 could be skewed because of Bulldog Virtual Learning developed in response to the pandemic.

He started with numbers at the high school level, breaking them down into required and nonrequired courses. In 2019-20, the average class size for a nonrequired course was 17.5 with required courses at 22.9. In 2018-19, it was 16.1 and 21.6, respectively; and 18.2 and 21.4 in 2017-18.

“Overall, the class sizes aren’t too bad. Ironically, they’re lower than some of our elementary class sizes,” McGrory said. “But when you break it down some of the things that I found interesting are that a lot of our required courses, particularly for graduation, are some of our highest classes.”

Evans Middle School had the highest class size averages in the district, but “still not bad” at 23.8.

“What I think why there’s probably some concerns about our class sizes at the middle school is you have a combination of things. You have the highest class sizes in the district; students going to a large middle school on top of that from a family small, maybe, elementary,” he said. “The combination of that probably gives the perception that those class sizes are large. We’ll probably look at how we can address the larger class sizes at the middle school. … You can address that a couple of different ways. One is obviously hiring more staff, or offering more electives.”

Board member Christina Schark asked about the possibility of block scheduling at OHS and Evans “where you can essentially duplicate your space without adding physical space” to help mitigate class sizes since the space in those buildings is maxed out.

McGrory said he wasn’t sure on that. “Other things you could do without increasing your spaces is looking at adding an extra period to the day, like an eighth period at the high school, that would lower your class size averages without increasing your space needs,” he said.

At the elementary level, McGrory noted that the highest class sizes tended to be in kindergarten. “That probably perpetuates that thought, when you’re starting out in our school system and kindergarten, that we do have high class sizes, because that’s the grade you start seeing those high class sizes.” He said it’s an area they plan on providing recommendations for Jan. 25 to stay in the guidelines of no higher than 20 at that level.

The average class size at the elementary level is 20.9. “One thing you always want to keep in mind with class size, particularly when you have two-section buildings, you can still have an average of 20, but they can still get pretty distorted,” McGrory said. “You might school that has a 25 average because they have two sections and they don’t have enough sections to even our numbers. You have to kind of watch sometimes, the class size may be a little bit misleading.”

Board member Nancy Manson also noted that as you look at the chart diagonally, following the same students as they progress through the grade levels, the numbers rise. “I think it shows that the class sizes are larger than we think they are when you look at the numbers. I think we need to do something, especially about reducing class sizes.”

Overall, McGrory said, the numbers aren’t too bad. “I think there’s certainly some areas we need to focus on and address,” he added.

Board member Brian Jones asked about the impact students returning from Bulldog Virtual Learning next year would have.

“Our thought is that fairly early on trying to find out, get a really good idea of how many are going to come back for next year, and then we can look at class size and see if there’s any issues there,” McGrory said.

In other business:

• The district found out this week how much money it will be receiving in the second round of ESSR funds due to COVID-19. After a first-round allotment of $880,000, McGrory said they were hoping for four times that amount. It is actually $4,262,000, about five times the first-round amount.

• Board Secretary and CFO John Berg said the the voted PPEL special election is set for March 2. He encouraged board members to educate the public on what the funds would mean for the district and said they are working on a public campaign on the issue.

• McGrory said that the district is in the process of asking staff to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations, anticipating the first round of doses will be administered at the end of January. He said 507 staff members so far have filled out the form with 71% interested in receiving the vaccine.

• The board voted unanimously on entering a bond refinancing agreement with Piper Sandler & Co. to refinance outstanding sales tax bonds from 2012-13. “The interest rate environment is extremely favorable right now,” Berg said. Refinancing now would drop the interest rate from about 3% to around 1%. “After the costs of refinancing, the district is looking at saving about $980,000 over the life of the loans,” he said, or about 58% of the outstanding interest.

• The first reading on modifications to board policies 503.01 on student conduct, 503.05 on nonviolent student restraint, and 701.03 on financial records were all approved unanimously.

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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