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Bill provides flexibility to SAGE program

After state budget shortfalls and cuts to school funding, the Superior school district finally caught a break from the state government this month. The unexpected help comes in the form of a bill that restructures the Student Achievement Guarante...

After state budget shortfalls and cuts to school funding, the Superior school district finally caught a break from the state government this month.

The unexpected help comes in the form of a bill that restructures the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program. SAGE provides schools with funding -- based on the number of low-income students enrolled -- to keep class sizes low in kindergarten through third grade. Schools accepting the funding must have classes no larger than 15 students per teacher.

Superior was among the many districts struggling to meet the 15:1 requirement and had considered abandoning the SAGE program, but the new bill grants participating schools more flexibility. Under the adjusted guidelines, schools would be allowed class sizes as large as 18:1.

That change, said Superior superintendent Janna Stevens, will save SAGE in Superior.

The bill passed in both the Assembly and the Senate this month. Now only the signature of Gov. Jim Doyle stands between the district and the successful resolution of its SAGE problem.

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"I've been assured that Governor Doyle will be signing it into law," Stevens said. "Truthfully, it's been a long time coming, as far as I'm concerned."

The Superior district has been fighting to keep SAGE for the last three years, applying for waivers and shifting teachers between schools to comply with the strict 15:1 teacher-student ratio. Last year, the district reassigned three teachers to SAGE classrooms at Northern Lights Elementary School.

Superior's SAGE troubles persisted this year. In February, Stevens informed the Superior School Board that the district would once again be out of compliance with SAGE guidelines. She put a number of options before the board, some of which called for layoffs.

Superior has participated in the program for more than a decade, and it pays for the salaries of 19 teachers. The district also subsidizes the SAGE funding, employing seven additional teachers to meet class size requirements.

Hoping to avoid any layoffs, the board instructed Stevens to pursue a specialized waiver that would have allowed the district to retain SAGE fully in some schools while participating to a lesser degree in others. Stevens submitted an application for the waiver for three elementary schools -- Bryant, Great Lakes and Cooper. She learned shortly afterward that only Cooper could be granted the waiver.

"Bryant and Great Lakes both are in their new contract year, which means we have to submit a new request to be a SAGE school," Stevens said. "Because it's our new year, they can't give a waiver to a school that doesn't even have a new contract yet, which makes logical sense."

The outlook seemed bleak until Superior received unexpected news. A bill allowing more leniency in class size ratios under the SAGE program was working its way through the legislature.

The bill was introduced in late February, just as Superior was considering its options for the coming school year. The situation couldn't have worked out better for the district. Superior's SAGE program will continue for at least another year with no modifications.

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"Ironically enough, we are better off with the new SAGE guidelines than we were with the waivers. So it came out as the best case scenario," Stevens said.

"We're intending to keep it at all of our schools, knowing that our ratio in kindergarten through third grade could go up to 18:1," she continued. "Some of the classes next year are still going to be 15:1, some will be a little higher. I haven't seen any that are 18:1, but they could be hitting that exact number and still be in compliance."

Stevens said she expects the district to continue its current level of involvement in the SAGE program with no layoffs. The district is still in the process of settling its contract with the teacher's union, however, and Stevens said the result of negotiations could have an impact on the matter. The district must issue notices of layoffs by May 10.

"Pending the settlement of that, our plan is that, yes, we want to move forward because we don't want to lay anybody off in this district," Stevens said.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
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