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Hillsborough aims for a windfall in costly class-size amendment

Getting ready for riders: Longtime tire mechanic Eddie Hayes rolls a used tire from the tire shop to the bus yard at the Hillsborough County Transportation Garage in Thonotosassa on Monday afternoon. The Hillsborough County School District owns about 1,400 school buses that are driven by 1,000 drivers, officials said. The garage operates about 20 hours a day in three shifts, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and closing at midnight. Students in Hillsborough return to class today.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Getting ready for riders: Longtime tire mechanic Eddie Hayes rolls a used tire from the tire shop to the bus yard at the Hillsborough County Transportation Garage in Thonotosassa on Monday afternoon. The Hillsborough County School District owns about 1,400 school buses that are driven by 1,000 drivers, officials said. The garage operates about 20 hours a day in three shifts, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and closing at midnight. Students in Hillsborough return to class today.

SEFFNER — Teachers don't ordinarily need a reminder to check their attendance lists on the first day of school.

But there's an added sense of urgency as classes resume today in Hillsborough County. A single error — one extra student not counted among 190,000 when the state eventually makes its official tally in October — could deny the district up to $35 million.

That's the reward Hillsborough could reap if it complies fully with the class-size amendment voters approved in 2002, and which moves into its final phase across Florida this week.

But the district won't see a dime if a single classroom is out of compliance — and might even face penalties.

It's a lottery-sized payoff that superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district has every intention of winning.

"We intend to comply and reap the rewards," she told a crowd Monday at McDonald Elementary during the district's annual back-to-school news conference.

Hillsborough officials have made no secret of their distaste for the final phase of the amendment, which sets class sizes to "hard caps" of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

Since 2003, the district has spent around $1.5 billion in state money to build more classrooms and hire more teachers to comply with the law. And its officials have urged voters to approve a ballot initiative in November that would roll back class-size limits to last year's requirement.

But unlike a handful of districts including Pinellas and Hernando counties, officials here say they'll take no part in a lawsuit being brought by the Florida School Boards Association that seeks to overturn the system of penalties and rewards approved by last year's Legislature.

Far from it.

"There are some districts that I believe did not use the funding that came for the right purposes, and that was to continue to get down the class sizes," Elia said. "And if they can't meet it now, then I think it's reasonable to have a penalty for not doing that."

Under the Legislature's system, districts would be penalized half their base allocation for each student beyond the limits, and that money would go to other districts as a reward.

Under the new limits, if last year's class sizes were unchanged, Hillsborough and Pinellas each would owe more than $8 million, while Pasco and Hernando would be liable for $9.3 million and $3.2 million, respectively.

Those penalties would improperly transfer local money from one district to another, said Ruth Melton, legislative relations director for the school association.

"I think it's difficult for one school district to ever appreciate the economic and class-size pressures that exist in another community," she said.

Much of Monday's news conference at McDonald Elementary was devoted to upbeat topics. It was less than a year ago that McDonald classrooms were scorched by fire, but the school still boosted its state grade from C to A, Elia said.

She praised her district's achievements in raising student performance; managing a dire economic climate without layoffs or furloughs; and launching a $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to transform how teachers are evaluated, supported and paid.

"We are doing things that this district has never done before," Elia said. "It is all of us working together to be a model for where school districts across this country should go."

But officials are also girding themselves to deliver some tough news. Once schools reach their capacity under the class-size law, new families will be turned away — even if they bought a home across the street from the school.

Already new arrivals have been diverted from two compact Tampa elementary schools, Sheehy and MOSI Partnership. And soon that may happen at larger schools, said Bill Person, general director of pupil placement.

"It's tight, but we have not hit the point where we have to stop registering students," he said. "That may happen Tuesday. I suspect we're going to cross that bridge soon, but I don't know where."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough aims for a windfall in costly class-size amendment 08/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 12:00am]

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