The Atlanta Public School system has increased the number of students per teacher while finding classroom space where it can to make up a $19 million budget shortfall, and early reaction from Buckhead parents appears to be mixed.

During the week of Sept. 12 there was a parent outcry surrounding the school system’s “leveling” process, in which the system moves teachers after getting a better handle on each particular school’s enrollment.

The leveling process occurs each year, school officials said. The system also is replacing more than 100 teachers who were suspended in the wake of the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. Superintendent Erroll Davis said the suspended teachers have no bearing on the schools leveling process and said that the reaction to it was unnecessary.

“It’s part of the process it should be expected,” Davis said. “With respect to class ratios themselves, they have been creeping up but it’s a reflection of our economic realities.” He said classroom sizes have been artificially low because the school board dipped into savings. He said teacher to student ratio is important, but he said the quality of the teacher in a classroom is more important.

Enrollment is reported to be up at most Buckhead schools.

“More and more families are utilizing the public school system and the International Baccalaureate curriculum that is offered K through 12,” District 4 School Board Member Nancy Meister said. “The quality of our teachers and administrators make this option very appealing to the community.”

At E. Rivers Elementary, enrollment rose by about 66 students. The school system added, then removed portable classrooms before finally opting to convert the auditorium into additional classroom space because the portables were in a flood plain.

The complaints and letters from Buckhead parents about class sizes prompted Meister to send an email explaining the situation. In the email, Meister said the parents received bad information about classroom sizes and said the leveling process wouldn’t be quite as drastic as they’d heard.

“As I received your emails and met with PTA presidents today, it was apparent that the numbers the board approved and the numbers that Human Resources was working off of were very different,” Meister wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, this discrepancy has been identified and although there will be an increase in class size, it will not be as severe and will be what your principals anticipated.”

Davis said the numbers that were released were preliminary ones released Sept. 12. He said he did not know who released those numbers to the public, but said the firestorm it generated should be a lesson in patience.

“It’s an example of moving too quickly on erroneous information and if you don’t believe we have the children’s best interest at heart you might react that way, but the only thing I can say is we do have their best interests at heart and you should perhaps wait for official decisions before you gear up your machines,” Davis said.

Keith Bromery, spokesman for the school system, said APS in August increased kindergarten classes by three students to 23 per class, in grades 1-3 by four students to 25 per class, and by two students to 30 per class in grades 4-8. Bromery said a school projected enrollment versus actual enrollment is, “usually pretty close but it’s enough so that you have to shift people around.” Bromery said individual school capacities are being recalculated because of the increase in class sizes.

Tom Pierce, a parent at Morris Brandon Elementary, said the class sizes are “way too big for 5-year-olds.”

In an email to the School Superintendent Erroll Davis, Pierce said he was told that there would be as many as 35 students per class and that the school would lose as many as six teachers as part of the leveling process. He said he believes the numbers he received were accurate at the time.

I don’t know “whether that’s a face-saving move or a legitimate math error,” he said.

The chief overcrowding issue in the Buckhead area now is Sutton Middle School, built for 1,040 students with 1,306 enrolled. A new North Atlanta High School is scheduled to open in 2013 to help with overcrowding at Sutton. Currently the school is using several portable classrooms.

Sutton Parent Teacher Association co-president Margaret Long said parents think the school is handling the situation well, though she is looking forward to having a new high school. Co-president Leigh Darby agreed.

“I know people say we’re overcrowded, we’re at capacity,” Darby said. “It doesn’t feel like that.”

Sutton Principal Audrey Sofianos said the school can grow to handle additional enrollment if it needs it, but said the plan is to bring enrollment below capacity.

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com