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Pasco school district plans to skirt class size amendment, pay fine

Superintendent Kurt Browning has recommended a strategic violation of the class-size mandate, saying it’s cheaper to miss the mark than to hit it. Here, Cotee River Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Nova Baker, 10, Nilah Coleman, 10, and Louis DiBenetto, 10, work on their writing skills in Diane Johnson’s class in New Port Richey in January.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Superintendent Kurt Browning has recommended a strategic violation of the class-size mandate, saying it’s cheaper to miss the mark than to hit it. Here, Cotee River Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Nova Baker, 10, Nilah Coleman, 10, and Louis DiBenetto, 10, work on their writing skills in Diane Johnson’s class in New Port Richey in January.

LAND O'LAKES — For the second time in three years, the Pasco County School Board plans to violate the state's class size amendment to balance its budget.

Like superintendent Heather Fiorentino before him, superintendent Kurt Browning has recommended a strategic violation of the 2002 voter mandate, saying it's cheaper to miss the mark than to hit it.

"We would not be making class size under this budget," Browning told School Board members in April, when he first introduced his proposal. "We would save $4 million . . . but would face a $213,000 penalty for not making it."

The penalties shrink by 75 percent if districts in violation comply with the amendment the following year. The district took advantage of that twist this year, spending $7 million on new teachers to reduce the $4 million assessed for failing to meet the rules in 2011.

Looking toward 2013-14, the board is working to overcome a projected $25.5 million funding shortfall. It has decided not to tap into one-time revenue sources to cover the hole, making the endeavor more difficult than in past years.

That has made the class size move attractive, if not preferred. So the board has blessed it despite the constitutional amendment, which sets specific caps on student numbers per classroom in core courses. Lawmakers have attempted to soften the requirements, but both bills and voter referenda have failed — including a measure to reduce the penalties in the most recent legislative session.

"The class size issue did not move in the Senate, and I do not expect it to move again next year," said Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, R-Pasco County. "They need to adhere to it. A significant number of districts have. To plan not to be class-size compliant, I think, flies in the face of the voters."

Board member Joanne Hurley stressed that the aim remains to meet the mandate at the school average at worst, or class by class at best. It's the flexibility that many districts pushed for, but didn't get, when faced with the reality of having to meet the rules in every classroom during every class period.

"We are not disregarding the intent of the law," Hurley said. "We are trying our best to meet that goal."

It just does not seem possible in every class, said assistant superintendent Amelia Larson. She said the district leadership expects to meet the requirement in 90 percent of classes.

"For a few classes, we are going to add more kids," Larson said.

But those classes won't be random, she explained. Rather, the district has given schools instructions on the types of courses that might be considered for expanded enrollment.

They won't be ones where added students could result in lower achievement, Larson said, offering Algebra I as an example.

"If we go above class size (in Algebra I), it doesn't really help kids. It doesn't really help teachers," she said. "That class already has a high failure rate. So we don't want to do it there."

She said schools will look at their student performance data to determine where the larger classes would hurt least.

Board member Allen Altman contended that full compliance with the class size amendment causes more problems than paying a penalty.

"We literally had classes that were disrupted and children unfairly moved around because of situations that were totally out of the district's control," Altman said. "Class size on a school average still assures you classes will be smaller and instruction will be with a very manageable number of children. If I was writing the rules, they would not be on a rigorous class by class basis, and we would not be facing these issues."

Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong agreed, saying that the district received far more complaints when it strictly enforced the class size rules this past fall, than when it chose to simply pay the fine a year earlier.

"I know the reality of the parent complaints we got meeting class size, and I know the budget constraints," she said. "It's one thing when the voters say they want strict class size requirements, but then they're not willing to pay to make it happen."

Pasco voters did not support the original class size amendment, with 46 percent backing the referendum. In 2010, when asked to lessen the amendment requirements, 58.9 percent of Pasco voters agreed.

That same year, 54.6 percent of Pasco voters denied the School Board the ability to levy an additional 25 cents per $1,000 of property tax to cover critical operating needs.

The tax would have generated about $5.5 million, which the district then had to find in other places. By using one-time revenue sources, the board kept spending in place that it did not have income to support.

As a result, even with money from the state increasing, the district finds itself in a spot of having to make choices that eliminate jobs and violate the class size amendment.

It's not where board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley wants to be. If not for this budget "crisis," she said, class size would not even be an issue.

Added board member Steve Luikart, "It's not the right thing to do. But it's the economic thing to do."

The board continues to hone its 2013-14 budget this spring. The deadline to adopt the final version comes in September.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. Visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco school district plans to skirt class size amendment, pay fine 05/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 7:59pm]
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