So far this school year, overcrowding has cost Edmonds School District $800K in extra teacher pay

Beverly Elementary School students at the start of the 2019-20 school year (Image courtesy of the Edmonds School District website)

In response to staff shortages, the Edmonds School District is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to teachers working in overcrowded classrooms.

Since the start of the 2019-20 school year, more than $800,000 has been paid to teachers whose class sizes exceed the district’s teacher-to-student class size ratios — and that’s just for one semester.

Under the contract between the district and the teachers’ union, when a teacher’s classroom enrollment goes over the allotted ratio, the teacher receives compensation, called trigger pay. In the Edmonds School District, class sizes for kindergarten through third grade are in the mid 20s, while grades 4 through 12 class sizes range from the high 20s to the low 30s.

Since the 1980s, the district has used trigger pay in instances of increased enrollment, classroom shortages and budget deficits — like what the district experienced this year. Last May, the Edmonds School Board of Directors voted to increase the classroom ratio by three students to accommodate district layoffs in the wake of the deficit.

Each year, the district sets aside a portion of its budget to fund potential trigger pay. The anticipated amount is based on funding the district receives from the state and its projected student enrollment, said Assistant Superintendent Greg Schwab.

“You can’t increase the ratio and not expect there to be a trigger cost,” he said. “We built that into the budget knowing that we were going to have to pay some additional cost this year.”

Teachers receiving trigger pay are paid a lump sum quarterly from the district’s general fund.

At the start of the school year, district staff continue to monitor enrollment and the amount of trigger pay needed for teachers who are exceeding preferred class sizes. However, Schwab said enrollment projections can be difficult, especially at the secondary level where some students leave campus during the day for enrichment programs. For instance, Running Start takes place at Edmonds Community College, which does not open until three weeks into the district’s school year.

“It’s like trying to squeeze sand, because you can’t get a grip on it,” Schwab said.

As the year progresses, district staff are able to better analyze enrollment and the needed amount of trigger pay decreases. At the start of this school year, enrollment was higher than expected, which meant the district was able to recall 25 teachers laid off after the May vote. Of the 25 recalls, 18 teachers returned to work at the district, said district Human Resources Director Debby Carter.

Greg Schwab

However, Schwab said it is easier to compensate teachers with extra pay than it is to hire more teachers. By the time district staff has figured out staffing needs, classes have begun.

“It can be really challenging to add teachers after the school year has started,” he said. “To do that, you have to pick apart classes and move students around and that’s incredibly disruptive.”

Teachers who reach the trigger threshold have the option of requesting a paraeducator to help them in the classroom instead of receiving extra pay. However, Schwab said scheduling conflicts make it difficult to bring paraeducators in to assist with overcrowded classrooms for an hour a day.

According to the district’s quarterly records, most of the schools where teachers receive trigger pay are at the secondary level. Meadowdale High School leads the district, having already paid $105,425 in trigger pay. Lynnwood and Edmonds-Woodway high schools are next at $72,425 and $52,600, respectively.

Records also show that in elementary schools, teachers receive an average of $750 per class that is overcrowded.

However, many teachers agree that extra pay is not the solution to overcrowded classrooms.

“I think if you would talk to teachers, they would absolutely tell you they don’t want trigger, they want our class sizes to be relieved,” Schwab said. “Trigger is a way we try to address it, but the ideal way is to put staffing in.”

Edmonds Education Association President Andi Nofziger-Meadows agreed that teachers prefer smaller, manageable class sizes instead of extra pay.

“Trigger pay is not something anyone sees as desirable,” she said, “We want better learning conditions for our students.”

Though the school board voted to increase class sizes by three students, Nofziger-Meadows said the number of students added to classrooms is usually higher — four or five. According to Nofziger-Meadows, when the district calculates the students-to-teacher ratio, they’re figuring in other school staff who don’t teach — like librarians, counselors and deans of students — not just the teachers.

“(The district) should have left the staffing ratio and class sizes where they were and we wouldn’t have the situation we have right now,” she said.

Also with more students per classroom, the volume of grading, emails and meetings about students also goes up. Nofziger-Meadows pointed out this leaves less time for teachers to provide one-on-one teaching for students who need extra help.

“You don’t have the time to sit down and re-explain something or take it further for a student,” she said. “You don’t have the same amount of time to listen to them.”

Too many students in a classroom could also pose a safety risk like when students work in science groups and are handling sensitive materials, Nofziger-Meadows added.

“At the end of the day teachers want to do their best for all their students,” she said. “It’s hard to feel like you’re really being successful when you don’t have time to sit down and spend with them individually because your class is just too full.”

Teachers are not the only ones dissatisfied with the way the district is handling classroom overcrowding. Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson – who has been an active critic of district spending in recent years — said it’s “outrageous” that the district is projected to spend more than $1 million in property tax revenues this school year on teachers who already receive some of the highest salaries in Washington state.

If the district and individual school principals effectively managed class counts these funds would then be allocated as they should be for basic education,” he said. “With the current teachers union agreement expiring this summer, there will be a group of concerned taxpayers providing input on how the district is using our property tax dollars.”

However, trigger pay is not expected to disappear anytime soon. Schwab said it is still too early to tell what next year will bring for the district, but the staff is scheduled to meet this month to look at incoming in enrollment projections and discuss what revenues the district anticipates receiving from the state.

“I think our hope and our desire is that we rein trigger in again and we really truly address class size issues across our system,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to take a look at the ratios we set for this year and make some changes.”

— By Cody Sexton

  1. The district could better spend these funds in other ways to assist teachers in classrooms deemed too large. However, they need to recognize there is very little credible research that validates any magic number for class size. That being said there is a point where too many do negatively effect the learning setting. It is more important to have reasonable class size in the primary grades than intermediate or secondary. A reallocation of this resource to hiring targeted over-crowded classrooms with reading content professionals to go in primary classrooms to assist the regular teacher with language (reading and writing) for example. This resource could be shared throughout the day to maximize the resource among several classrooms. Reading is the most critical skill noted by research for students to be proficient in by grade 3. I would encourage the district to re-visit the research on class-size, classroom resources, and effective teaching research that can target alternative methods to address this problem. The current practice is a poor substitute for assisting the teacher in a over-crowed classroom.

      1. Darrol, if you want a real eye opener on money management , obtain the current figures on sub pay when teachers are out of the classroom and include that amount in the 800K.

  2. Some of the data and discussion is a bit confusing. $750 per class to the teacher of that class. $800,000 cost for first semester. That would suggest more than 1000 classes beyond the trigger numbers? Is the pay for a 1 hour class? A week of 1 hour classes or what? If it is for 1 hour, the $750 is 1.5 times the average daily pay of $500. While it might be nice to have added classroom help, the $750 takes a way a lot of the trauma of the extra work.

    The $750 must be for more that a one hour calls with extra kids?

  3. I have heard of some getting “double trigger” pay. Can they get triple? Whatever happened to the strong voices for lower class size?

  4. Mike, did not look at sub numbers, with 1000 teachers in district they are probably high. Can’t have a class of kids with no teacher, part of normal activity with teachers out.

    $800k for this time period would fund 20 teachers. With 1000 events in say 100 days, that is 10 overcrowded classes a day. 20 teachers could cover those classes and still have time to do other work for the district. The numbers just do not add up to me.

  5. We are accepting too many people into this country. Immigration needs to be cut drastically or stopped and illegal immigrants need to me sent back.

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