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Hernando County schools meet class size requirements

BROOKSVILLE — Hard work and headaches have been integral parts of the equation as the Hernando County School District worked this year to meet stricter class size mandates.

Administrators labored over master schedules. Teachers gave up planning periods to take on extra classes. Courses were cut or merged, students were shifted to different classes, and parents' patience was tested. And the district spent more than $1 million (and counting) to hire staffers.

The reward came Wednesday, when Hernando County officials got the official word from the state: The district is among the 32 of 67 districts in compliance with the final phase of the 2002 class size amendment.

"My initial reaction is just tremendous appreciation for the amount of work that the staff put in to make this work," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

Districts that failed to comply face heavy fines — about $3,000 for every student over the limit — so the news is worth celebrating.

But only for a moment.

"We're very excited," said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. "But this is only hurdle No. 1."

Clearing the second hurdle, like the first, will take plenty more work and dollars.

Districts must remain in compliance at all times, and the state will check in October 2011. School officials must keep class sizes within the limits and decide how to transition to more permanent measures to meet the caps next year, Martin said.

This year's budget included $4 million to meet the requirements. The district has spent about $1.4 million of that so far to hire long-term substitutes and provide supplemental pay for teachers taking on extra classes, so there should be a chunk that will carry over to next year's budget, Martin said.

The specifics will be up to the School Board, but it's likely the district will have to bolster staffing levels next year with permanent teachers, Martin said. They cost about $57,000 a year in salary and benefits, compared with $20,000 for a long-term sub.

The board will consider next year's staffing plan in February or March.

With the loss of millions in federal stimulus dollars that helped pay for personnel, declining revenue from plummeting property values, and new recurring expenses — such as the recently opened Weeki Wachee High and the soon-to-open K-8 school next door — next year's budget process could be a painful one.

"We're going to have a number of real concerns," Blavatt said.

Districts not in compliance have until Dec. 17 to appeal. The state plans to give money from class size penalties to districts that met the requirements, but those dollars could be tied up in litigation for months and might never come. The Florida School Boards Association previously announced plans to challenge the penalties in court if the state attempts to impose them.

Hernando County could have been one of the districts facing fines, so it would be troubling to accept money on the backs of other districts, Blavatt said.

"I don't feel good about it," he said. Considering funding woes, however, "I don't think we have the option to turn it down."

Meanwhile, students continue to enroll in Hernando County schools, and the district must react to keep classes within the caps of 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth grade through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.

At Brooksville Elementary, for example, the designated "overflow" classroom for the second grade had the maximum 36 students, with a teacher and a long-term substitute in a co-teaching arrangement.

Then two more second graders enrolled, so now the school will get another long-term substitute.

While that will help meet the mandate, educators like Brooksville principal Mary LeDoux acknowledge co-teaching situations are less than ideal. But LeDoux has no other choice.

"I'm thrilled Hernando County made class size, and the district has been on top of it since day one, but I'm out of space," LeDoux said.

Divvying up classes to meet the size caps has for many schools exacerbated an existing space crunch. The Weeki Wachee K-8, which is set to open its elementary grades next fall, will take the burden off schools that are operating at or above capacity.

In the meantime, "We're making do this year," LeDoux said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County schools meet class size requirements 12/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 8:06pm]
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