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Hillsborough school district sweats deadline as class size limit looms

TAMPA — For eight years, it's never gone away.

Lawmakers have swatted it down a bit, giving school districts time to stall. But as an August deadline looms for full implementation of the class-size amendment approved by voters in 2002, educators continue to clash over its impact.

On Tuesday, Hillsborough County School Board members marveled again over the expense and complexities involved in getting classes to state-mandated levels by the 2010-11 school year.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said it will take 240 more teachers and almost $14 million to cap every district classroom at 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade; 22 in grades four to eight; and 25 in high school.

That, she said, is on top of the 3,923 teacher positions and $212 million in operating dollars already allocated by the district to comply with current mandates requiring the districtwide class-size averages.

The expense, board member Candy Olson said, "comes at a time when we're falling over a cliff financially."

When someone asked Elia to repeat the financial sanctions that could befall districts where schools aren't in compliance, she indicated that incurring sanctions isn't an option:

"I am going to follow the laws of the state of Florida," Elia said, "and the law of the state of Florida is that we comply."

On March 9, the School Board will discuss the issue again and possibly take a stance in support of legislation altering the rules.

William Person, the district's general director of pupil placement who helped organize a task force on class-size issues, handed board members copies of a bill currently making its way through Tallahassee. Sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, it would once again bring the matter to Florida voters.

This time, they would be asked to revise the amendment, and mandate school averages rather than classroom counts.

Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said she's not counting on voter support for such a change. She said she wants legislators to rewrite the implementing legislation and make it easier for districts to pull off, lessening the sanctions and being more flexible about meeting regulations.

"The Legislature sits in Tallahassee for the next two months," she said. "They change the law every day."

Miles Elementary kindergarten teacher Deidra McDonald helped lead a committee that drew up a list of 39 recommendations for how the district can cope with the current legislation.

Midmeeting, board member Jack Lamb asked her personal experience. McDonald said she's taught kindergarten classes of 31, 22 and 17.

Seventeen works best, she said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Hillsborough school district sweats deadline as class size limit looms 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 10:40pm]
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