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In annual appeal, union urges vigilance against large classes

The United Federation of Teachers is gearing up for its annual struggle to wrangle classes down to their contractual size limits.

As schools work to pinch every cent out of their compressed budgets, there are few safeguards in place to ward off swelling class sizes, and the UFT is asking members to be especially vigilant this year.

In the Sept. 1 Chapter Leader Weekly Update, the union urged its school representatives to monitor class size closely from the first day of classes so that after an “informal resolution” period ends on Sept. 21, the union can begin filing grievances.

One element of the UFT’s bid to challenge the city’s class-size efforts is in legal limbo. In 2010, the union sued the city over its spending of class size reduction funds, charging that the Department of Education had used the funds for other purposes. But this summer, an appeals court threw out the suit, ruling that the issue should be handled by the State Education Department.

Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman, said the union was still weighing how to proceed. But he said that putting pressure on the DOE early has traditionally paid off for the union, with schools rectifying many class size violations as the chaos of the first days of class wears away.

“In practice the DOE, particularly in high schools, often exceeds these limits at the beginning of the school year, but under pressure from the UFT, generally brings them down to the contractual limit, though it can take weeks for some schools to do so,” Riley said.

The union contract limits class size to 25 students in kindergarten, 32 in grades one through six and up to 35 in the upper grades. In the past, extra funding from the state enabled the city to keep class sizes even smaller in grades one through three. Now these funds have run dry.

As a result, Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, said younger students will bear the brunt of increased class sizes this year, making an early response essential.

“We need to be proactive from the very first day of school, because what we know from kids and from teachers is the first two months of school are critical to a student’s success,” she said. “Everything that can be done must be done to push the DOE on this issue as quickly as possible, in as public a way as possible to shame them into trying to address this issue.”

Here’s the union’s complete message to chapter leaders about class size:

Chapter Leader Weekly Update: Higher than anticipated retirements, deep budget cuts, growing student enrollment and the continued partial hiring freeze have created the potential for class sizes to balloon more this year than ever. That’s why it’s of utmost importance this year that chapter leaders carefully track and report class sizes in their schools. Based on your reports, the UFT will be using the expedited grievance procedure in the contract to ensure that our class-size limits are enforced. On the 1st, 6th and 10th days of school, you’ll need to obtain from your school secretary the school’s RACL for elementary or intermediate schools or the Master Schedule Final for high schools, which indicates class sizes on each of those dates, and then use that information to report to your district representative the number of oversize classes in your school on the 1st school day, Thursday, Sept. 8; on the 6th school day, Thursday, Sept. 15; and on the 10th school day, Wednesday, Sept. 21. Please use the form given to you by your district rep to provide this information. The UFT will also be monitoring the use of City Council money provided to schools to cap class sizes in grades 1, 2, and 3 at 28. The union uses these reports to gauge the scope and severity of the problem across the city. Meanwhile, speak to your principal about resolving any oversize class issues. This is the Informal Resolution period when the DOE has 10 school days to equalize registers and resolve any class-size violations. As in all grievances, do not sign any formal resolutions without speaking to your DR. At the end of this period, Sept. 21, the 10th school day, your DR must know of any classes still oversize so the union can file demands for arbitration. Class-size limitations are in Article 7M of the contract.