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Hernando School Board to join suit challenging class size amendment penalties

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando school district staffers had only just started a presentation on strategies to meet the impending stricter class size requirements when the School Board made a decision: We're joining a lawsuit to fight the state's plan to levy financial penalties against districts that don't meet the goal.

"This is an issue I'm more than comfortable fighting," board member John Sweeney said during Tuesday's workshop.

Sweeney's four fellow board members agreed, directing attorney Paul Carland to add a resolution onto Tuesday evening's regular meeting agenda. The district will pay a $1,500 retainer to a Tallahassee law firm hired by the Florida School Boards Association.

At least three districts — Dade, Palm Beach and Broward — have done the same to join a class-action suit to challenge the state's plan to take money from districts that don't meet the stricter class size requirements set to take effect this fall, Carland told the board.

The suit is not challenging the amendment itself. Rather, the complaint questions the legality of the penalty.

"It's probably a strategic battle that they're taking at this point to attack the financial penalty rather than the lack of funding," Carland said.

The requirements on core classes were placed in the state Constitution after an amendment approved by voters in 2002. The limits have been phased in since then, first by using districtwide averages and then by schoolwide averages. The calculations will be made at the classroom level at the start of the upcoming school year and cap prekindergarten to third-grade classes at 18 students; fourth- to eighth-grade classes at 22; and high school classes at 25.

Based on last year's student data, Hernando has nearly 2,400 classes out of compliance, Heather Martin, executive director of business services, told the board.

That could mean a penalty of more than $3.2 million, Martin said. Under the state's plan, money collected in penalties would go to districts which do meet the requirements. But Sweeney, reading a memo from FSBA director Wayne Blanton, noted that few districts expect to be able to do so.

"Just from an equity and fairness perspective, how can you take money from one county and give it to another county?" superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

To meet the goal just by hiring more teachers, the district would have to add nearly 400 teachers at a cost of some $23.4 million, Martin said.

Some districts that can't afford such increases in personnel costs are facing drastic measures such as eliminating non-core classes like music and art, cutting classes with small enrollments, and changing attendance zones.

Hernando can't afford those new hires, either, but will likely be able to avoid painful measures through other strategies, Martin said.

Teachers will receive an extra pay supplement to take on additional classes. Other staffers such as media specialists, guidance counselors and assessment teachers who have the proper certifications can also teach core classes.

"Many, many teachers have stepped up and are willing to do that," Martin said.

At the elementary grade level, classes over the cap would get a long-term substitute as a co-teacher. That way, if a proposed amendment on the November ballot to ease the class size restrictions passes, the district is not locked into full teacher contracts, she said. Hernando's new virtual school program also will help, Martin said.

The district has set aside $4 million in the 2010-2011 budget to help meet the class caps.

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

Hernando School Board to join suit challenging class size amendment penalties 07/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 8:11pm]
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