School Climate & Safety

Judge Backs Drive to Place Class-Size Issue on Ballot

By Catherine Gewertz — October 15, 2003 3 min read
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A judge has ordered that New York City voters be allowed to decide next month whether to form a commission to explore the possibility of writing class-size limits into city law.

Unless it is overturned on appeal, the Oct. 2 decision places a question on the Nov. 4 ballot that asks the residents in the nation’s largest school district if they want to create a Charter Revision Commission to examine the class-size issue. Such a panel could propose a ballot initiative next year asking voters if they want to revise the city charter to include class-size caps.

The city’s law department said it disagreed with Supreme Court Justice Louise Gruner Gans’ analysis, and it sought an expedited appeal of her decision. Arguments before an appellate court were scheduled for Oct. 17.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that led a coalition in filing suit to force the measure onto the ballot, called the trial-court judge’s decision “a great day for kids, for schools, and for New Yorkers.”

Leonie Haimson, the founder of Class Size Matters, a New York City nonprofit group, said residents had to put the issue before voters because city leaders have done too little about it.

“Year after year, politicians promise to do something about it and have done nothing,” she said of the class-size problem. “This fall, it is even worse than ever. To us, this just underlines the need for this initiative.”

A UFT survey of local union chapter leaders found that as school opened this fall, more than 9,000 classes exceeded the size limits spelled out in the union’s contract, which range from 25 children in kindergarten to 34 in high school. Some advocates of smaller classes say even those limits are too high.

‘Packed in There’

Karen Romeo said her daughter’s 5th grade class at PS 41 in Greenwich Village has 32 pupils, the union contract’s limit. She worries that the quiet girl will not get the guidance she needs.

“It’s packed in there,” Ms. Romeo said. “She says the teacher doesn’t see her when she raises her hand.”

Paul Rose, a spokesman for the city education department, said that “some schools” have seen overcrowded classes this year, owing to an unexpected increase of 5,000 9th graders, an influx of children from private and parochial schools, and students’ use of the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to transfer from schools labeled failing.

The city is trying to manage the situation by boosting staffing, offering per-diem payments to teachers who take more classes, and supplying portable classrooms where possible, he said.

“Our children will get the education they need and deserve,” Mr. Rose said.

The legal fight over the ballot initiative has nothing directly to do with whether classes are too crowded.

The coalition collected 115,000 signatures to back its petition, 70,000 more than were required, but the city clerk refused to put the measure on the ballot. The clerk cited a provision of city law allowing any proposal to form a charter-revision commission to be “bumped” off the ballot if the mayor wants to propose such a measure.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has already proposed three such measures for the Nov. 4 ballot, on matters that do not pertain to education.

In arguing against the coalition’s proposal, the city cited the bumping provision and argued that adding yet another commission proposal to the ballot could distract voters.

Justice Gans, however, declared that provision of city law unconstitutional. By “fencing out of the initiative process all who may differ with a mayor,” she wrote, the law imposes “a severe burden on ballot access” and deprives residents of their constitutional rights.

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