TAMPA — With little more than a week to go until districts are held accountable for meeting the final phase of Florida's class-size law, Hillsborough County schools are swinging into compliance.
But not without a fight.
On Tuesday, the School Board voted unanimously to support Amendment 8, which would roll back the 2002 initiative to last year's "school average" level and modify the enrollment caps that schools are scrambling to meet.
"It will give our schools flexibility in terms of meeting class-size," said chairwoman Susan Valdes, referring to the Nov. 2 ballot item. "And it will return local control to our schools in terms of scheduling."
By Oct. 15, districts must reduce class sizes to 18 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.
If the amendment passes, schools next year would have to maintain average enrollments at those levels, but individual classrooms could be as large as 21, 27 and 30 students respectively.
Teachers union president Jean Clements said it would be a mistake to modify the state law.
"Our Constitution calls for a free and adequately funded education," she said. "Had the Legislature ever done that, this constitutional amendment would never have come up."
But board members said the final phase of the law has proved too costly. "It's hurting everything progressive this district has done, just to meet class size," said Jennifer Faliero.
Whether Amendment 8 passes, districts must comply with the current law by next week's deadline or face stiff penalties.
Working toward that goal has cost Hillsborough $1.5 billion in state money since 2003 to build more schools or hire teachers. And it has wreaked havoc with student schedules, said deputy superintendent Ken Otero.
"I called three high schools," he said. "One of them (has made) over 500 schedule changes."
Since Sept. 24, Hillsborough has reduced its total number of oversized class sections from 1,883 to just 300 on Tuesday, according to district records.
Plant High School, which accounted for 101 of those classes, is down to zero. So is Ruskin Elementary, which had 125 class periods out of compliance as recently as Friday.
Ismael Lebron, an assistant principal at Ruskin, said his school was able to erase the imbalance by hiring four teachers. But he worries new arrivals could push his kindergarten or fifth grade over the limit. "We might enroll three to five kids a week," Lebron said. "We've just got to monitor it."
And how. If Hillsborough complies with the law, it will earn up to $35 million in state reward money. But if the district miscalculates by a single student out of 192,000, it won't see a dime.
"It's that one student that could put the whole district in danger of not meeting class size," Otero said. "That's the nightmare."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.