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Hernando County schools spend nearly $2 million to meet class-size caps

BROOKSVILLE — It's taking a lot of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the Hernando County School District is closing in on class size targets.

As of Friday, the district added 15 teacher allocations and 16 long-term substitutes to help bring class sizes into compliance with the 2002 constitutional amendment, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. Those numbers can fluctuate based on changes to enrollment as students enroll, leave the county or transfer between schools, Martin said.

But the tally so far offers an idea of the cost to shrink class sizes. Adding those staffers will cost roughly $1.2 million. The district has also approved about $300,000 in supplemental pay for teachers who take on additional classes, and that figure is expected to double in the coming weeks. That would bring the cost to about $1.7 million.

Although the deadline to meet the requirements is Oct. 15, the district must be in compliance all year or face stiff financial penalties. There is $4 million set aside in the 2010-11 budget to meet class size requirements.

"I think we're going to be close to $2 million pretty soon," Martin said.

Here is where Amendment 8 comes in.

The cap that takes effect next month sets class sizes at 18 students in kindergarten through third grade; 22 students in fourth through eighth; and 25 students in ninth through 12th.

Amendment 8 on the Nov. 2 ballot would allow three more students in first- through third-grade classrooms and five more in the higher grades while requiring the existing limits to be met on a school average basis.

If voters approve the amendment, that could mean that some of the long-term substitutes could be relieved, Martin said.

"Some of temporary solutions we put in place, those may go away," she said.

But if voters reject the amendment, the district will have to hire more permanent teachers for next school year. A teacher costs the district on average about $57,000 a year in salaries and benefits, compared with $20,000 for a long-term substitute.

The prospects for flexibility don't look good. According to a Mason-Dixon poll released Thursday, only 35 percent of respondents who identified themselves as likely voters said they'll support Amendment 8. It takes 60 percent of the vote to amend the Florida Constitution. A majority of voters, 53 percent, oppose changing the class-size limitations.

Principals, guidance counselors, data entry specialists and other staffers deserve plenty of credit for getting the district to this point, Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

The task of preparing master class schedules this year was tough enough after the delayed Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results and the School Board's decision to change school bell times. Shifting students and changing schedules to equalize class numbers and minimize the need for more teachers added another degree of difficulty.

Students and parents also deserve praise for being patient during these first few weeks of school, Blavatt said. That's especially true at the high school level, where balancing class sizes creates a domino effect on student schedules.

At Central High School in Brooksville, about a half-dozen classes were still over the limit this week, principal Joe Clifford said. The school had more than 1,615 students as of Thursday — 170 more than projected — and got three additional teacher allocations to help ease the burden in algebra, geometry and Spanish.

"That really takes some of the pressure off," Clifford said.

In some cases students are being asked to change classes, and if there are no volunteers, students are selected randomly. But they represent a fraction of the total student population, he said.

"We're not talking mass changes here," Clifford said. "We're talking a few kids."

Ken Pritz, principal at Hernando High, said he and his staff tried not to cut electives to meet class size. The school is using long-term subs in Advanced Placement and honors classes.

"We didn't want to eliminate them, and we said we'll do what we have to do," Pritz said.

In some cases, staffers asked if some students wanted to enroll in the district's online school.

"You can usually get one volunteer," Pritz said.

At Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, principal Leechelle Booker got two long-term substitutes, one for science and one for exceptional student education.

School officials aren't permitted to lobby voters to take a stance on political issues like Amendment 8, but Blavatt doesn't shy away from offering his philosophy on class size caps.

"I would much prefer the flexibility of keeping the spirit of the class size amendment and keeping the numbers down, but looking at it on a more global perspective," he said.

Fast facts

Smaller classes, bigger expenses

It will cost nearly $2 million for the district to comply with the 2002 constitutional amendment cap, which sets class sizes at 18 students in kindergarten through third grade; 22 students in fourth through eighth; and 25 students in ninth through 12th.

Hernando County schools spend nearly $2 million to meet class-size caps 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 8:57pm]

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