A weekend interview with ...
... Ken Otero, chief of staff to Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Otero spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the school district's plans to deal with the next phase of the class-size amendment, when classroom counts take effect.
What is your concern with class size?
Well, the same concern that probably everybody in the state has. First of all, obviously next year as part of the implementation bill we have to be at ... 25, 22 and 18 at the different grade levels. That's going to, aside from getting the teachers which, to be frank with you, at this point probably not the hardest part.
The hardest part is going to be the room utilization, because we have schools right now that have no grounds to put portables, a limited number of classrooms and if we, I'll give you an example. Let's say every room in the school is used and we have three first-grade classes and they're running at 18 each, which is where they're supposed to be, and a kid comes in. ... Even if you say we're going to give that school another unit and we're going to divide those two of 18 and one of 19 ... into four, which would bring us under the class cap. That would be great, but where do we put that teacher? That's a problem.
The other side of that is, do we say, "We're sorry but the school is closed. There's no room at this school. You have to go to another school where there's room."
Is that your answer?
No it's not my answer. That's why we're going to have the committee.
The committee will do what?
The committee will review all of the possible scenarios, all of those questions that are out there, and will make recommendations as to how to handle them in terms of, do you put the "No Room" sign up? Do you do more team teaching, or triads, or whatever else you can legally do? Do you redo boundaries? Whatever options we have. Do you do double sessions? Those are all things that need to be looked at. This is something that affects everybody. It affects the entire community. So we look at everything, and everybody has to have a piece of this. That's why we're putting the committee together.
How do you choose who will be on the committee?
Certain people we will choose, and certain groups will be chosen by the people who they represent. Like obviously you will have some parents, and they will be through PTA. We might have some parents who have used the choice option through the district, and we could get them through the choice office. We'll look at county and city government and ask them to send someone. There's various categories. ... Obviously the teacher union.
I could imagine this could be more controversial than, for instance, putting the calendar together. How do you keep things from getting emotional?
I don't see it as emotional as the calendar, because we're dealing with an amendment to the constitution which there are no ifs or buts about that. This is what the deal is. This is what we have to do. That's provided nothing changes between now and next year.
Is the school district recommending to its legislative delegation that perhaps the amendment needs changing?
Well, in fact at the workshop someone mentioned that someone from the legislative delegation could be a member of the committee also. Obviously, a reprieve of meeting the class size, class by class, if that were done for next year, that would be helpful to give us more time to do it.
It's not actually required, is it, until 2010, right?
Yeah, but the implementation bill is requiring it. The amendment doesn't. But the amendment was passed in, what? '02? And then the State Board of Education put in the implementation bill on how it was to be done, reduce by two every year. And first it was district average, then it was school average, and then this coming year in the plan it was to be class by class. There's issues that they have to work through also. Like how is this going to be determined. Because you still have the possibility in certain areas of if you reduce by two and you still meet the requirement of the law, because that was part of it, too.
How do you determine it, because it's not the same class from one year to the next. ... We're waiting to get some direction and some things from the state. ... The citizens passed the amendment. It wasn't theirs, either. And we all have to work toward doing that if or until there is a change. And there might never be a change.
Would the school district also be looking to going to a year-round calendar to make better use of the space that exists?
That would be something that would be reviewed by that task force, but we would rather not do that, if possible.
I recall also when I looked at the numbers there were enough seats district-wide, just not really in the right places. How do you deal with that issue?
Well, that is the boundary issue. Yes, if you took total number of seats in the district vs. the total number of students in the district, you could probably accomplish it. ... But it goes back to that issue, you have Durant overcrowded and Robinson below capacity.
And they're not exactly close.
No, not at all. And that's the problem. You look at all our high schools, and really the only high schools I can think of off the top of my head that are significantly below capacity are Lennard and Robinson.
This is not a problem just for Hillsborough.
Heck no. This is a problem for the entire state. In fact, for us, we have never been penalized at any of the stages of this thing. There are other districts that have been penalized because they didn't make even the school wide average. So we're probably closer than most districts.
Do you think what you're doing might wind up being a model for what other districts do?
It might. And they might do something that we think will work for us as well. So it's something that everybody is going to be looking at what everybody else is doing.
For parents who are getting ready to enroll their kids for the following school year, and they're already in the middle of choice, what should they be worried about at this point, if anything?
It's hard to say what to be worried about because we don't know yet how it's going to be addressed. And it could be something we don't have to worry about next year. ... Or, it may be something that is a concern because now we're going to have to look at maybe not having as many choices, doing something different with special assignment. There's all sorts of things that could affect us. But right now, there's no need to panic. We just need to work through it.
So there's not going to be a "This school is closed" sign out in front of any schools anytime soon?
Let's put it this way. We haven't made that decision. If we had all the decisions, we wouldn't have the task force. ...
Is there anything else about this that you think the general public will want to know about how this whole process with class size is working and what the district is trying to do?
I think what the public needs to understand, they need to truly understand the implications of this thing. While it sounds great, 18, 22 and 25, that sounds wonderful. But is that much different than one class of 18 and one of 19 if it means you don't have to go to another school? You know what I mean? How much difference will that actually make in the instructional delivery?
That's why perhaps if something were done that it was a school wide average, which we have been under this year and last year, and except for a few here and there we don't have overcrowded core classes. I've looked at them. This is an example too. At a high school, we may have a teacher who has 150 kids, which is six classes at 25. But may they have one of 23 and one of 27. ... For me to move those two kids from the one of 27, it will affect a change somewhere else in that kid's schedule. Because I can't just put them out of that and into the 23, because what those kids take while that 23 is going on might be the only offering of that class. Those are the things that play into this. Personally, I think a school wide average is a good scenario if it were ever accepted.