Berkeley Federation of Teachers renegotiate pay because of increased class sizes

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Mark Unger/Staff

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Class sizes at Berkeley High School this fall exceed numbers set in teacher contracts, leading to negotiations about pay between the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, and Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD.

According to an announcement sent out to Berkeley High School families from principal Erin Schweng, unexpected enrollment trends and problems with a new student data system meant that about 60 students had to be added to classes as the school year began. BHS decided to allow larger classes instead of hiring new teachers and rearranging schedules, according to the announcement.

“In the recent past we have found that even when we are able to secure teachers for additional classes in the first few weeks of school, the disruption to student schedules is very upsetting to students and families,” the announcement read.

Teacher contracts specify that BUSD will fund average class sizes of 28 students for every teacher at BHS. The current average class size is at least 28.45 students per teacher.

In response, the BFT reached an agreement with BUSD to increase pay for teachers with larger classes. Cathy Campbell, president of BFT, said in an email that BFT plans to work with BUSD to examine what led to the larger class sizes, and take steps to avoid future violations.

According to a BHS teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the union, that compromise does not satisfy some BHS teachers. Some teachers have drafted a petition asking that they not be forced to accept the compromise. In addition, several teachers allege that the union violated their duty of fair representation by allowing BUSD to exceed teacher contracts, and are considering filing a charge with the California Public Employment RelationsBoard.

This contract violation, together with general problems stemming from increased class sizes, has upset some Berkeley High School teachers, according to an earlier version of the petition that BHS teachers began circulating before the compromise was made between BFT and BUSD. The petition called upon BUSD to hire and reallocate teachers to bring the BHS class average back down to 28.

“This is the most children I have ever taught at one time in my teaching career of nearly 30 years,” said Berkeley High School math teacher Masha Albrecht, who presented the earlier version of the petition to the school board, in an email. “Because of this, I am still uncertain of a few of my students’ names, which is unprecedented for me.”

The petition states that class sizes have increased steadily over the past few years, and that increased class sizes impact vulnerable and struggling students in particular.

“(BUSD administration) won’t feel the consequences of larger class size that teachers and students face,” read the petition. “It is teachers and staff who will pay the cost of increased workload, while students will receive a diminished quality of education.”

The larger class sizes are not distributed evenly. BHS prioritizes smaller class sizes in lower level introductory classes, and other courses with high student demand. As a result, larger class sizes are concentrated in higher level and Advanced Placement courses.

Berkeley High School student and director of communications for the California Association of Student Councils Arvin Hariri said that, even though his classes feel crowded, BHS’s strategy of focusing resources towards more popular, general classes benefits the school community.

“Strategic implementation works well,” Hariri said. “It makes sure those who need the attention most get it.”

Instead, Hariri attributed broader state and nationwide trends — including a lack of funding for public education, the difficulty of receiving accreditation and a stigma around being a public-school teacher — for large class sizes.

Contact Sam Levin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.