If the Baltimore Teachers Union has its way, voters will decide in November whether the city should commit millions of dollars to reducing class sizes in public schools.
The teachers yesterday delivered to City Hall petitions bearing more than 20,000 signatures -- twice the number needed to put the question on the general election ballot. The signatures must now be verified.
Class size affects the amount of time available for individual attention, the quality of teaching possible, and a teacher's ability to control a class, said union co-president Irene Dandridge.
It also affects the education budget: More teachers would be needed if Baltimore schools placed new limits on the number of students assigned to each class.
"I don't know what it's going to cost, but I'm sure that we will get mammoth opposition from city officials," Ms. Dandridge said.
Last year, when the union mounted an unsuccessful petition drive on the same issue, its officers estimated Baltimore would have to hire 1,000 more teachers at more than $30 million to meet the proposed class-size limits.
"While I agree that smaller class sizes are better for students, it would be devastating, because I don't know where we would get the money," school superintendent Walter G. Amprey said yesterday.
The school system already uses some limits on class size for the youngest grades: 25 first- or second-graders to a teacher, for example, said Linwood Roberts, personnel director. At higher levels, averages are used: 32 third-graders to a teacher; 35 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders per teacher. Averages for upper grades are based on class periods, not on student counts.
The union's petition calls for no more than 22 preschool or kindergarten students assigned to a teacher; 25 elementary students; 28 middle school students; 33 high school students. A survey of teachers by the union early this year found more than 30 students -- and in some cases more than 40 students -- per class in many elementary, middle and high schools.
"Large class sizes are just detrimental with our kids today -- not just because of the size, but because of the needs of the children we deal with now," said Theresa Gresham, a George Street Elementary School teacher who supported the petition.
George Street reduced class sizes about four years ago by hiring three teachers with federal funds, said principal Barbara Hill, who supports the campaign for smaller classes.
"It's easier to keep a number of children well managed and on task," she said. "It makes preparation for teachers easier." This year, due to federal budget cuts, her school can't afford the extra teachers, she said, and some class sizes will rise from 25 or fewer students to about 30 students.