BROOKSVILLE — It's cha-cha time at Chocachatti Elementary.
"We are going to do the Lucy Dance," teacher Rhonda Bowers tells a dance studio full of first-graders on a recent afternoon, prompting cheers from boys and girls alike.
Bowers cues the music for the boys and girls, dubbed Rickys and Lucys, respectively. "Arms up! Spin! And … bow," Bowers says, doing the movements along with her charges. "Boys, say 'Ole' to the girls!"
A few doors down in the science lab, first-graders are huddled around laptop computers. Teacher Ruth Markham warns them she's about to ask a really hard question. A boy groans.
What are the five classes of vertebrates? After a few minutes, a little girl finally gets the fifth one: "Fish!" Markham taps a button on each computer and it's on to the next unit.
These "specials" classes — and the decision administrators may soon have to make about which ones to cut — help illustrate what schools stand to lose as officials try to find ways to meet the impending class size requirements.
The district must find an estimated 78 more teaching positions for core classes such as reading, math and science. To help meet that need, a proposed staffing plan for next year would shift 46 non-core positions to core classes.
But some educators worry many of these positions are ones that set Hernando schools apart. They include 15 positions that support the magnet and theme programs at Chocachatti, Brooksville Elementary, Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, Powell Middle, J.D. Floyd K-8 and Nature Coast Technical High.
There are also plans to reduce elective teachers at high schools and transitional teachers at the elementary level, among other cuts.
Chocachatti would lose three magnet positions. The school's leadership team has already decided the school will keep its microsociety program, in which students choose jobs and operate businesses, by adding more work to already overworked staffers, principal Maria Rybka said.
But the school will have to decide which of the specials classes it will keep: Theater, dance and drama? Or the math and science labs that reinforce lessons in those areas with hands-on activities?
Since the school is a fine arts magnet, the latter are likely to go, Rybka said. "It's just sad," she said. "Something's got to give."
The cuts would be painful at schools already running magnet and theme programs shorthanded. Eight of the 15 positions that would be eliminated are not now filled because of the tight budget.
Because the class size compliance has been calculated by using schoolwide averages, principals could do some creative scheduling to continue to offer courses they feel are crucial to the magnet or theme experience.
Challenger K-8 did not fill three magnet positions that would be eliminated. Since the school wanted to continue to offer electives in astronomy, archaeology, marine biology and zoology for students in sixth and seventh grades, teachers took a few more students in core classes, principal Sue Stoops said.
The strategy probably will not be possible under the proposed staffing plan, Stoops said.
Brooksville Elementary would lose two positions that support its global studies and Spanish language themes. That will doom the school's ability to provide theme-based classes at all grade levels, principal Mary LeDoux said.
"It wouldn't service all of the kids, but we'd try to keep at least a portion of the programs alive," LeDoux said.
Ray Pinder, principal at Floyd, said he would use similar strategies for the school's environmental science program. Under the staffing plan, he would lose two positions.
"We'll continue to provide the very best education that we can and the best theme in science we possibly can no matter what our allocations wind up being," Pinder said.
The cuts could have a devastating effect on the district's programs and performance, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
"We've gone from cutting the fat to cutting off limbs," he said.
At a workshop earlier this month, the board put off a decision on the staffing plan hoping the state will clarify the budget picture soon. The board asked for a breakdown of the magnet and theme positions and how they are used at each school.
Even without that information, board member Sandra Nicholson said she would be reluctant to let them go.
"We have worked very hard over the last few years putting these programs in place to make our county rise above average," Nicholson said.
"No one wants to cut specialized programs," board member Dianne Bonfield replied. "They mean so much to a child's education. But I also have to look out for the employees and I don't want to see people losing jobs."
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Central High School principal Joe Clifford is worried about the school's ability to maintain programs such as graphics, food service, automotive repair and business academy if the school loses an elective position.
"I'm trying to turn a school around," he said. "In order to do that, I have to do things that attract kids and give them enthusiasm and excitement. … There are people who want to be in these programs."
The staffing plan also would cut 12 transitional teachers at the K-5 level. These teachers spend time with students trying to catch up with their peers, so the loss is worrisome to those trying to meet state accountability standards based on the learning gains made by these students.
Even if the plan is approved, the district still must come up with an additional 32 core positions at a cost of $1.9 million. That could mean reassigning 11 of the 21 assessment teachers to core positions, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services.
Schools would share assessment teachers, whose full-time job is to break down test data to help classroom teachers identify the students that need extra help and to administer tests like the FCAT. Officials at all levels credit them for the district's performance.
The district's five high schools would probably have to keep a dedicated assessment staffer because of the sheer number of tests at that level, said Linda Peirce, the district's testing specialist.
But Peirce and principals say they doubt that an assessment teacher split between two or more schools could do the job effectively.
"I just see us going backwards as a district," said Peirce said.
Martin emphasized that the staffing plan would stave off layoffs. She said employees can be shifted back to non-core positions if and when the budget picture improves or class size restrictions are eased. Martin warned that even tougher decisions may be on the horizon. The staffing plan does not take into consideration rumored cuts to education funding that could be as high as 9 percent.
"I think you may have a worse picture in three weeks," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.