NEW BUFFALO — With the school year about to begin on Tuesday, Sept. 3, the New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education began a discussion about Schools of Choice and class size.

The item appeared on the agenda as a discussion item at the request of Trustee Patricia Newton, a former teacher in the district. Newton said she had expected to discuss the number of students and class sizes the district was planning but Superintendent Jeff Leslie said those number aren’t known until the school year begins and the students report for class.

As discussion continued it appeared that the issue was raised due to the high numbers expected at the kindergarten level, for which the district had approved 10 Schools of Choice openings at its April board meeting. This unusually high number of openings was in anticipation of accommodating the eight out-of-district students enrolled in its pre-kindergarten program.

In recent years, the district has had two kindergarten classes. The teachers’ contract calls for the addition of a para-professional when class sizes exceeds 23 students. Leslie said the district’s “paper estimate” was 47 kindergarten students for the coming year.

Newton said she was not advocating hiring another teacher but thought the board needed to discuss the issue. She referenced studies she read on the benefits of small class sizes, student/teacher bonding and the pros and cons of paraprofessionals. She also termed “inflammatory” one item that asserted that class size reduction brought increased teacher union dues. Later in the meeting, teacher union president Christina Beuhausen clarified that she had never heard a discussion in New Buffalo about class size reduction correlating with more union dues.

Trustee Lisa Werner said she often cautioned about allowing too many out-of-district enrollees, especially when the district is also supporting adding affordable house within its boundaries. Werner said she was not in favor of adding a third kindergarten section at this time. She said it is important to not just look at the number of students but to also consider the type of student and those with special needs.

“I don’t think we should jump the gun on a third section but we have to figure out what is best for the student.  We have to figure it out with the teachers, not unilaterally,” Werner said, noting that hiring the right para-professional is key.

Board President Chuck Heit said the district has to balance the need to grow the district and still maintain its commitment to small class sizes. He noted the drop in districtwide enrollment in recent years from 594 students to 542. He said adding a new section was a bigger step than adding a para-professional and said the board needs to continue the discussion.

During public comment, kindergarten teacher Rene Fitts told the board that when she was hired six years ago as a first-grade teacher, the small class sizes were one of the attractions to teaching in the district which she said “is like being in Disneyland.” She said she wanted what is best for the students and would appreciate an aide, but noted the time it takes to find qualified personnel. She said she knows there are qualified teachers that would jump at the chance to join teach in New Buffalo, even at this late date.

In other Aug. 26 business the Board of Education:

• Hired Marietta Meuli as a noon hour aide

• Accepted the resignation of Kristen Sheldon as paraprofessional at the elementary school due to family reasons;

• Hired Patricia Daniel as high school cheer coach:

• Approved several board policies which had undergone routine revisions and updates.

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