LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools has spent millions of dollars over the past three years compensating teachers whose class sizes exceeded what is allowed under their contract -- and the district plans to spend up to $1.5 million again this year.

According to data obtained from the district in response to an open records request, JCPS has spent $596,000 on overage pay so far this year. Last year, it spent $1.6 million, compared to $1.9 million in 2013-14 and $2.1 million in 2012-13.

Overage pay kicks in when the number of children in a classroom exceeds the student-to-teacher ratio outlined in the contract between JCPS and the Jefferson County Teachers Association. The ratio is one teacher per 24 students in grades K-3; one for every 28 in grades 4-5; and one for every 29 in grade 5. If a class exceeds those numbers, teachers either get supplemental pay or a full-time instructional assistant.

In most cases, it's the schools that choose to raise their own class sizes in order to have the flexibility to fund other positions -- and the money comes directly from the individual budgets of each school, unless the overages are assigned by the district.

"Students don't always come in packages of 24, 28 and 29," says Cordelia Hardin, the district's chief financial officer. "If the students are assigned over the ratio by the district, then the district picks up that cost. Otherwise, it's up to the schools to budget overages."

Approximately $500,000 of the extra spending results from the district assigning extra students to the schools, she said.

However, a new budget proposal unveiled last week that could further increase class sizes and change the way schools receive their funding allocation has caused a stir among many JCPS teachers and principals -- some who fear they will not be able to accommodate the demand of the programs they are offering students.

Changing the funding formula that the district has used for years will likely mean schools will lose funds that in the past they have "sold back" to the district to use for other positions or programs, said Brigitte Owens, principal of Stopher Elementary School in eastern Jefferson County.

"Overages work for us," said Owens, whose school has spent $485,800 over the past three school years and has already racked up $71,000 in overages this year. "We've been able to look at the needs of our school and figure out a budget that works for our students. Our teachers are happy, our parents are happy...and our school has been successful, why change that?"

According to Tom Hudson, the district's new chief business officer, the school system will "not reduce the number of classroom teaching positions," but could potentially shift as many as 280 teachers and mean more students in 4th through 12th grade classrooms.

Hardin told WDRB News on Tuesday she "doesn't believe JCPS will stay with the recommendation that was made at the work session."

"We are still reviewing data to see what is the best allocation," she said.

Hudson said the district wants to "assure parents and the community that the new JCPS budgeting process is about ensuring that every school has the resources and support it needs to help every student succeed."

"It's about $17.5 million that will be available for us to use on other things," Hudson told board members in a work session before the Dec. 14 board meeting. "We are taking these teachers and re-purposing them in a way that is more effective than just using the standard allocation."

Since it opened in 2007, Stopher has ranked among the highest performing schools in Kentucky. It's also been named a national Blue Ribbon School, a recognition from the U.S. Department of Education which is based on student achievement and other research-based indicators of school quality.

"We don't get the Title I funds that other schools get," Owens said, referring to the federal money given to schools that serve a large percentage of low-income children. "We use the overage pay not just to pay those teachers whose classes go over the ratios, but to fund many other important programs and positions."

For example, Owens has been able to expand the school's Response to Intervention (RtP) program, which uses data to determine the individualized instruction that students need, as well as to help pay for an outdoor classroom. The school also offers two foreign languages -- Latin and Chinese.

In addition, Stopher doesn't have the space to open another classroom, Owens said.

"We can't take all the overages and put them in one class because they are all in different grades," she said. "We don't have room for that."

Hardin says the district only pays about $500,000 annually in the overage pay -- the rest comes out

The extra student pay has been part of the teacher's contract for about a decade as a way to discourage principals from not following the ratios, says Brent McKim, president of JCTA.

"They were putting too many kids in a classroom and that has an impact on how well a teacher can teach," he said.

Hudson said the process of schools trading or selling back teachers needs to be examined.

He added that officials will consider modifying the teacher allocations on a case-by-case basis.

"This would essentially be our starting point," he said. "Schools will be able to come to us and say this won't work for for us...but they will have to make an explicit case about what they need and they will have to justify their request with data rather than anecdotal history."

McKim says he hopes the new budgeting plan will mean more instructional support inside JCPS classrooms -- not less. And he says district officials need to look at the reason why some principals were trading in teaching positions in the first place.

"This is a symptom of an out of control data demand by central office," McKim said. "Eventually, that turns instructional positions into non-instructional positions. They need to be aware of the unintended consequences."

Superintendent Donna Hargens told board members last week that the goal of the proposal is not to save money, but to "deploy teachers where we need them the most."

"It's teachers in different places...where by research they can make the most impact," she said. "It's redeploying, not eliminating."

Several board members have said they were OK with proceeding with the proposal, but urged officials to do so with caution.

The current year's budget is $1.4 billion, with $1.1 billion being funded by the general fund. 

The 2016-17 draft budget will be up for school board approval on Jan. 24.

District-level meetings with Hargens and her staff will take place through April, which is when new budget requests, if any, are added to the tentative budget which be up for board approval in May. 

The final working budget is not expected to be approved until September.

Among the schools with the highest amount in overage pay in 2014-15:

  • Stopher Elementary: $139,010
  • Foster Elementary: $66,556
  • Kenwood Elementary: $63,766
  • Auburndale Elementary: $57,405
  • Bloom Elementary $49,332

Click here to see the overage pay by school for 2014-15

Click here to see the overage pay by school for 2015-16 (through Dec. 4, 2015)

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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