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A weekend interview with state Sen. Don Gaetz about the class size amendment

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Florida voters will get the opportunity to reconsider the 2002 class size amendment in November. It's a move that Republicans in the Florida House have pushed for over several years without the support of the Florida Senate. Until this year. Sen. Don Gaetz sponsored the resolution to place the matter back on the ballot, and this time the Senate went along. Gaetz spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his expectations for any campaign to change the amendment.

Now that the class size amendment is back before the voters, what is the plan to actually address the issue with the voters?

Well, I think the responsibility to bring the case for right-sizing class size belongs to those who brought the issue to Rep. Weatherford and me, and that's the School Boards Association, and the Association of District School Superintendents, and the Florida Association of School Administrators, and teachers and parent leaders who brought the issue to us. If there's to be a campaign on the issue, I don't think it should be a Tallahassee-directed campaign. I think it should be a grassroots campaign. I'll be happy to go anywhere in my district and answer any questions about the class-size modifications. But if there is to be a statewide campaign, it needs to be developed by the people who brought the issue to us.

I know school districts have shown a lot of concern about this issue. But wasn't there a bill passed that prohibits school districts from campaigning?

No. There was a bill that Sen. Justice sponsored and I cosponsored last year that said taxpayer dollars cannot be used to buy political advertising. But there's no bill -- it would violate, it would seem to me, the First Amendment -- to say a School Board member, or a superintendent, or a teacher or a parent can't speak out on an issue or contribute money in support of a cause or organize a meeting.

What about creating documents that show the effects of the class size amendment one way or the other. Would that fall under the same rules?

Well, I'm not a lawyer. But I think that the Justice bill which I cosponsored and supported ... I don't think there's anything in that bill that would prevent a school board member or superintendent or principal from depicting here is our plan, or here is what is likely to happen in our community if there is no change to class size. When it morphs into, So vote yes, if it becomes a political document, then it seems to me that those who would be for or against modifications should not use taxpayer dollars.

If somebody were to ask you the key reason why the class size amendment needs to be on the ballot, regardless of how they vote on it, why do you think it needs to go back to voters?

Well, because those who operate our schools, who teach in our schools, who are the parent leaders in our schools have persuaded the Legislature that a strict interpretation of the existing class size amendment will create inflexible caps and those inflexible caps will in turn create disruption in the learning environment. If a 19th student moves in and someone, based on my understanding of law and I'm not a lawyer, if someone walks down to the courthouse and says, Look, it says here in the constitution very clearly no more than 18 students and my son's third-grade class there's 21 in there, I'd like to take the School Board to court because I think they're violating their oath of office to preserve and protect and uphold the constitution of Florida.

And I think we want to avoid that type of disruption, of having that 19th student be the cause of having to split classes and having to haul in portables and having to hire teachers in the middle of the year that no one wanted to hire at the beginning of the year. Similarly, I don't think we want to create a metastasis of lawsuits every time the 19th or 20th student shows up and the school can't hire another teacher or drag in another portable or split a class as fast as some parent or some union representative or some citizen wants. So I think those are the reasons the issue was brought to us and those are the reasons why we passed the bill. I would hope the people who championed this cause and brought it to the Legislature will make that case, make it as eloquently in their local communities as they made it to us.

I understand that you have made it so the count doesn't have to take place until February to give the vote a chance to take place.

Exactly. Correct.

Well, what happens if the vote takes place and it doesn't get the 60 percent? Then how is the state going to be able to make the next phase of the class size amendment happen?

I think that's a great question. I don't want to give anybody any ideas, but if there's no modification of the class size amendment, if there's no small bit of flexibility in local control provided, it would seem to me that school districts will live in fear of the 19th student showing up in a neighborhood and that causing either disruption or a lawsuit.

Well, I guess we have our work cut out for us.

Yeah. I think it will be interesting. I don't know which way it will go as it goes before the voters. I think it will be a very heavy lift. And I certainly look forward to all of those school board members and superintendents and principals and teachers and parents who e-mailed me and contacted other lawmakers about this issue, I look forward to them leading an effort in their neighborhoods and their home communities.

I was waiting for you to say you will be the campaign chairman.

(Laughs) No, no, no, no. Not me.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:58am]

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