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Florida legislators say lack of money will force changes in class size amendment goals

For six years now, opponents of Florida's class size reduction amendment have fretted that it would cost too much.

Now, even some of the most ardent supporters share that concern.

"We realize the class size amendment is good," said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, vice chairman of Education Appropriations. "But we don't have the revenue right now."

The state's economic picture was quite different in 2002, when voters approved the class size amendment. The amendment mandates that districts, by the 2010-11 school year, reduce class sizes to no more than 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in grades 9-12. Currently, schools can meet those limits as a schoolwide average.

But with the Legislature facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, it's clear that the class size amendment — and its hefty price tag of $13 billion to date — will not go unscathed.

Lawmakers say they're likely to delay full implementation for one more year. But what comes next is causing a stir.

The choices are stark:

• Put the issue back before voters, asking them to undo the classroom counts in favor of school class size averages.

• Temporarily suspend the amendment until the state has money to pay for it.

• Increase taxes and other revenue streams to cover the costs.

Meeting the school average standard would be easy enough. Last year, just 19 of the state's 3,105 schools that fall subject to the rules missed the mark.

Going to the next level would be more costly.

The cost to build 831 needed new classrooms would be about $284.4 million over two years.

And the additional operating costs to meet classroom-by-classroom limits — primarily to hire additional teachers and run new buildings — could reach close to $1 billion a year. That's on top of the nearly $3 billion that the state already spends annually to implement the amendment.

Many school district leaders have pleaded for respite, saying they can't afford to meet the 2010 deadline. But support to change the amendment hasn't bubbled over to the general population, where small classes are increasingly popular. Some lawmakers question whether getting 60 percent of voters to change the amendment is even possible.

Yet the large price tag makes the class size amendment one of the elephants in the budget living room.

As issues go, "I don't know if it's No. 1, but it's at least in the top five," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sits on the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. "It's huge."

Senate Education Appropriations chairman Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, is leading an effort to find a compromise. He's been holding weekly meetings with Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate members, and representatives from teacher, school board, parent and administrator organizations.

The probable outcome, Wise said, will be a bill that would change the rules that govern class size — dealing with things like penalties and counting methods — paired with a revised amendment to send to voters.

No one wants to kill the smaller classes, Wise said. The law simply needs to be more realistic.

Siplin, who has attended the weekly sessions, said he hopes to keep the amendment alive while still dealing with the state's shuddering economy.

"We do want to do what's good for the kids," he said. "But we've got to be fiscally responsible. We can't make them (school districts) do what we can't fund."

It's a risky road to travel, suggested Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Delray Beach, vice chairman of the Senate Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means.

"I wonder about the reaction of the citizens of Florida if the Legislature were to tell them that in these difficult times, we wish to go back to them and ask them to reject something that they wanted and passed initially," Deutch said.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, opposed a 2006 resolution to put the matter back before voters. Even with the bad economy, she said, parents want smaller classes and more money for education. She figured a push to alter the amendment wouldn't pass without support from parents and educators.

Many groups, including the Florida School Boards Association, are on board with a scaled-back amendment. The state's teachers union is not.

"I understand this is going to cause a little bit of pain for the budget. But it's something we have to do," Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said. "Before we start saying 'no' to everything, we have to figure out what is in the art of the possible."

Whatever the result, relief can't come soon enough, said Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino. Pasco put off hiring 200 teachers needed to meet the amendment this year, saving $11 million. It faces that expense plus more in order to meet the final requirement.

"Let's do it in a way that we can afford," Fiorentino said, signaling her support to put the question back before voters. "You won't know until you try."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Florida legislators say lack of money will force changes in class size amendment goals 02/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 10:26am]

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