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Education

Utica school district faces record number of students per classroom

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Students in the Utica City School District headed back to the classroom Thursday. In recent years, the city's school district has made several decisions to help close budget gaps, including cutting about 200 staff positions. The result has been an incremental increase of the number of students in each classroom, which has now reached an all-time high.

According to officials with the Utica City School District, this year's student population has risen above 10,200 for this school year. Administrative Director Lori Eccleston says that means there are anywhere between 31 and 36 students in most of the classrooms throughout the district.

Some classes at the secondary level, including physical education classes, approach 40 kids.

"Given the fact that the Utica district has been grossly underfunded, class sizes are larger than normal," Eccleston said. "Due to sequestration concerns and constraints by the federal government, our allocations, the federal title monies have been cut. Some of the ancillary support staff that we were able to have for students have been cut and class sizes are larger."

Cherie Grant, president of the Utica Teachers Association, believes the root of the problem is a lack of education funding.

"The intentional under funding of public education, and there's only so much money that is being given by the state to small, urban school districts," Grant said. And because they're not fully funded by the state, are having to do more and more with less and less."

And because there isn't enough money to go around, Grant says the district has been put in a position where it has to cut teachers and other educational support staff.

"I've seen small class sizes in the day when we were fully funded and could hire additional staff to support smaller classroom sizes," Grant said. "And now, when I currently have 29 students slated on my roster and I've been told that student roster may in fact change."

Eccleston says this year alone the district 278 English as a Second Language, or ESL, students enrolled in kindergarten this summer, providing another challenge for large classes. Utica is the home of one of the largest refugee populations in the northeast.

The Utica City School District has also been hurt by a decrease in local revenues. During school budget talks last year and earlier this year, some school board members objected to larger increases in the property tax rate, saying the district should not balance its budget on the backs of taxpayers.