Board chooses new approach for small Bo-Stin classes

05/02/2019

To better support the shrinking student body of the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District, the board of trustees this spring created what it hopes will be a permanent configuration for the grades at the Bolinas campus. The restructuring—which includes combining every two grades into one classroom led by two primary teachers—came despite some concerns over its financial implications.

The district—which expects 99 students next school year, compared to the around 250 enrolled in the 1980s—has had various combined-grade classes in the past, tailored each year based on enrollment. Typically, just one primary teacher tackled each combined class, charged with covering a full selection of subjects across two grades; often, teachers taught different grade combinations from year to year.

Michelle Stephens, who is finishing her first year as principal this spring, began conferencing with parents and teachers last November about a possible restructuring that could both alleviate the strain on teachers and provide more consistency for students. 

With the support of superintendent John Carroll and the majority of polled parents and certificated employees, Ms. Stephens recommended the new structure to the board earlier this year. 

Yet she did not have the support of the classified staff, who were opposed due to concerns that the budget would be balanced with eventual cuts to their positions. The board, in a 3-1 vote, approved the restructuring on March 8. 

“I think this model really lends itself to our school community,” Ms. Stephens told the Light. “It will allow two teachers to learn their own content and the standards deeply, with their knowledge spanning two grades.”

There is a precedent for joint teaching across multiple grades in the district. This year, Don Jolley—who is retiring this spring after teaching middle school math and science for more than three decades—and Gohar Yervandyan—who came on last fall to teach English and history for seventh and eighth grades—pooled their efforts. In a classroom equipped with a removable divider, they worked together, meeting with both grades for some activities and teaching their separate subjects to grade-level breakout groups the rest of the time.

Mr. Jolley and Mr. Yervandyan told the board this winter that the structure allows them more flexibility and stability, and that they enjoy bouncing ideas off of each other. 

Ms. Stephens sees additional benefits from having two pairs of eyes in a classroom. “I think that it really helps the students to have a more diverse experience during the day,” she said. “Two sets of eyes for them means that one teacher may notice that a student is struggling or having issues, and the other teacher can notice it in a different curricular area.”

Concern about proficiency—particularly in math—has been voiced by numerous parents in recent years. Yet state tests paint an incomplete picture for the district, as they do not report on class sizes below 10 students, meaning the majority of the Bolinas-Stinson grades go unreported.

Ms. Stephens is currently working on an in-house reporting system to assess true performance.

Under the new class configurations, seventh and eighth grades will continue to be combined, along with grades five and six. Newly, fourth—which now stands alone—will combine with third, while second—which currently combines with third—will be left as a stand-alone class. The Stinson grades, including preschool, kindergarten and first grade, trend toward larger enrollment and will all continue as self-contained classes. 

The district has just one primary teacher for each of the combined classes now (with the exception of seventh and eighth), though most classes also have an instructional assistant or another type of aide. Still, the board only had to create one new full-time teaching position to achieve the new configurations.

This spring, the district was on the hunt for three new teachers, however, due to Mr. Jolley’s retirement and the departure of Rob Hoge, who has worked in the district since 2013, most recently as a math specialist.

Last month, the board approved the hiring of Zoe Pearl from the Ross Valley School District, and Sara Lieber from the Jefferson School District. One will teach third and fourth grades and the other fifth and sixth. The board is still looking for a replacement for Mr. Jolley.

The structural changes at the school have not come with unanimous support.

In February, Ms. Stephens presented four configuration possibilities to the board. Though the chosen option was favored by Mr. Carroll as well as by parents and certificated staff, classified staff were opposed to it, saying the new teacher position could take funding from other vital needs.

“We are the lowest paid members of the staff,” said Ben Lowrance, a district bus driver and the representative for the classified staff’s union. “If cuts are going to come, and inevitably they are, those cuts are obviously not going to come to the certificated staff or to the people in the office. There is a real fear among the [classified staff] that the district has spent themselves into a hole, and in order to get out, they are going to fill it with the bodies of the classified staff.” 

Mr. Lowrance said he was particularly concerned about the fate of instructional assistants, who do not hold teaching credentials, given the decision to staff classrooms with two certificated teachers.  

When the board approved the change on March 8, trustee Jennie Pfeiffer voted against it and trustee Steve Marcotte was absent. Ms. Pfeifer explained her hesitation to the Light last week. “I am very vocal about the fact that I think that we have way too many teachers for the number of students we have,” she said. “I feel like it isn’t sound financial governance to agree to that sort of configuration.”

She also expressed worry about the grade-level breakout groups, which may have as few as six students. “Six kids in a class is too few, and puts extra stress on the students and the teacher: it’s just not enough interaction with the kids,” she said. “If a couple kids are absent, or a cold is going around, that gets down to four kids.” 

The teacher-to-student ratio is low at Bolinas-Stinson, where there are 12.24 students for every classroom teacher, but it aligns with other West Marin schools. Statewide, public schools averaged 24 students for every one teacher in 2013—though that is much higher than the national average of 16 students per teacher that year. The ratio at Shoreline Unified is 13.2 students per teacher. 

The picture changes somewhat when support staff are factored in, however. Including instructional assistants, counselors, music and P.E. teachers and the like, Bolinas-Stinson’s ratio drops down to 4.6 students per staff member, while Shoreline is at 10.2 students.

Overall spending on staff at Bolinas-Stinson aligns with state averages, however: the district spends 84 percent of its $4.5 million budget on staff, compared to a state average of 85 percent in the 2010 to 2011 school year, according to the Education Data Partnership. Shoreline spends less of its budget on staffing, devoting 74 percent of its $15.5 million budget to staff.

But for Ms. Pfeifer, the bottom line is that Bolinas-Stinson is under financial strain: the district was operating at a $270,000 deficit this year. As a basic aid district, most of its operating funds come from property taxes, and the district is able to save unused funds from year to year. Deficit spending is taken out of those reserves, which currently total $1.2 million, though $675,000 of that—or 15 percent of the annual budget—must always be on hand in case of crisis, per state and board policy.  

This school year is the sixth in a row—with the exception of 2016-2017—that the district has been in the red.

At last Tuesday’s board meeting, Kate Lane, the assistant superintendent of the Marin County Office of Education, informed the board that the district was now considered “qualified,” meaning it “may not meet its financial obligation for the current year or next year based on submitted budget,” according to the California Department of Education. 

Practically speaking, this means increased county oversight while the district works to balance its budget.

Ms. Lane emphasized the importance of the district continuing to earn additional funds through its parcel tax, which currently accounts for 12 percent of the district’s spending budget. Both Ms. Lane and Mr. Carroll agreed that the most effective way for the district to reduce the deficit is by attrition: to forgo hiring when teachers, especially those who have been there for a long time, retire.

Last Tuesday, Ms. Pfeifer circled back to her concern that it was unwise to replace Mr. Jolley’s position, given the financials. Ultimately, the board pressed ahead.