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Advocates turn up pressure as city mulls overcrowding tallies

A citywide effort to make government more efficient has prompted the Department of Education to propose eliminating a handful of the data reports it compiles each year. But as a vote on the proposal approaches, opponents are ratcheting up the pressure in hopes it will not pass.

In 2010, voters approved a referendum to create the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which would identify “outdated or redundant” functions in city agencies. Each city agency was asked to suggest ways to trim its oprerations without disrupting government services.

The education department recommended that it report class sizes once a year instead of twice and eliminate one place where it compiles the number of classrooms held in trailers.

That proposal joined 12 other reports that the seven-member commission recommended eliminating at its first meeting in February. The commission, to which the majority of members were appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, also recommended eliminating seven regulatory boards that currently operate in the city.

The commission was supposed to take a final look at the recommendations on Oct. 30, in a meeting that has been rescheduled for Nov. 19 because of a scheduling conflict. Comptroller John Liu and other education advocates say they hope the commission will use the extra time to reconsider the Department of Education’s proposal, which they characterized as an effort to cover up overcrowding issues.

“The DOE’s desire to keep parents and students in the dark about class size is an affront to anyone who cares about the quality of our public schools,” Liu said in a statement earlier this week.

Department officials want to eliminate the first of two annual class size reports that they have compiled since 2005. The department releases class size numbers once in November, based on Oct. 31 enrollment, and once in February, based on Jan. 31 enrollment.

The Oct. 31 data is based on each school’s audited register, which the city uses for its own accountability reports, to allot school space, and to receive state aid reimbursement.

But in a slideshow presentation outlining the proposal, department officials said the data was “not as refined” as the Jan. 31 data. The February report, they said, would suffice.

The department also wants to eliminate a requirement to report the number of temporary classroom units — trailers, mostly — that schools are using. The department said that report is redundant since it keeps track of the trailers in different reports about school space utilization.

Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, who advocates for smaller class sizes, said the Oct. 31 class size data is more meaningful than the Jan. 31 numbers because it comes earlier in the year. She said the February report would fail to account for high school students who leave the school system toward the end of the first semester of school.

“The DOE wants to delay reporting class sizes until January because classes are smaller as a result of thousands of students having dropped out or been discharged by then,” Haimson said. She said the January reports show class sizes that are, on average, 4 percent smaller than the November reports.

Class size has been a thorn in the side of the Bloomberg administration. Parents consistently say that lowering class sizes is a top priority, but sizes have steadily increased in recent years as school budgets have gotten tighter. This year, average K-3 class sizes topped out at 24 students, up from 21 in 2007, according to Liu’s office. And the union identified 6,220 classes in 670 schools that were over their contractual limits during the first weeks of the school year.

Additionally, the department committed to remove all temporary classroom units by 2009 as part of its 2005-2009 capital plan. But that did not happen. There are currently 363 trailers operating as classrooms in the city, down from 368 in 2005, according to Liu’s office, and the department has more recently committed to decreasing the number of units by more than 10 per year.

City officials did not respond to specific requests for comment, but insisted that no decisions on proposals will be made until the commission first makes recommendations, which was postponed to Nov. 12, a week before the vote.

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