Hillsborough says no to class-size lawsuit
SEFFNER -- She said it before, and now she's said it again: no way.
Speaking Monday at the annual back-to-school news conference at McDonald Elementary, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia made it plain that her district would have nothing to do with a lawsuit being drawn up by the Florida School Boards Association to challenge the state Legislature's system to assess penalties and rewards under the 2002 class-size amendment.
"We intend to comply and reap the rewards," Elia said.
Under the system, Hillsborough could win up to $35 million in reward money for being in total compliance with the amendment, which caps class sizes at 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades, and 25 in high school. But if the district surpasses those limits it could owe money -- half of the base student allocation for each student out of compliance -- that would be used to pay for rewards elsewhere.
Based on a state analysis of last year's class sizes, Hillsborough and Pinellas each would owe more than $8 million, while Pasco and Hernando would be liable for $9.3 and $3.2 million respectively. But such numbers pale in comparison with the bills that might come due in South Florida, where Broward would owe $43.7 million and Miami-Dade would owe $76.5 million.
Elia and school board members have been vehement in saying that the lawsuit is without merit.
"There are some districts that I believe did not use the funding that came for the right purposes, and that was to continue to get down the class sizes," she said. "And if they can't meet it now, then I think it's reasonable to have a penalty for not doing that."
But an FSBA official rejected any suggestion that some school districts haven't been acting in good faith.
"The law specifically said that once annual goals were met, they could use the remaining money for any remaining (legal) purpose," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the FSBA. "That is in complete compliance with the law and in no way indicates a lack of commitment or responsibility."
Melton said the Legislature went too far by funding penalties through the base student allocation, which includes local tax dollars that might get transferred to other districts in the form of rewards. Such money is targeted for classrooms, and taking it away would harm children, she said.
"I think it’s difficult for one school district to ever appreciate the economic and class-size pressures that exist in another community," Melton added. "Hillsborough has been exemplary, I don’t know anyone who would criticize their implementation plan. But perhaps they should be more circumspect before criticizing others."
So far, 10 districts including Pinellas and Hernando have voted to join the suit, and at least four others have said they intend to do so, she said.
-- Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer