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Hillsborough schools predict class-size limits will cost millions, upset parents

TAMPA — Families moving to Hillsborough County this summer may find the nearest public school filled to capacity as the state's 2002 class-size reduction initiative enters its final phase, district officials warned Tuesday.

"This is so far under people's radar right now," said School Board member Jennifer Faliero. "Parents and students have no idea this is going to happen."

Starting in August, schools will face "hard caps" of 18 students in prekindergarten through third-grade classes, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.

Bill Person, the district's general director of student placement, said reducing individual class sizes to meet that requirement — rather than the current level, which uses school averages — is costing the district $13.9 million and forcing it to hire 240 additional teachers.

He said the district is prepared to comply with those changes, but it won't be easy to tell new arrivals there's no room at their neighborhood school.

Fifty-three schools in the district are already at their functional capacity, and 37 more are close enough to that status to be capped.

"It's going to be traumatic," Person said, describing the potential conversations with disappointed parents. "And then we're going to walk them through Hillsborough's (school) choice options. Some of them will have room, and some of them will provide transportation" to another school.

Speaking during a public hearing, district officials walked right up to the edge of openly advocating for Amendment 8, an item on the Nov. 4 ballot that would freeze the class-size shift at the current level.

Without it, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the district may be forced to split up classrooms in mid-year to stay in compliance with the law.

"We don't want to tell people how to vote, but we need to provide facts, so they'll be aware of the ramifications," she said.

"We don't have overcrowded classrooms right now because we have complied since 2002," Elia added. "I'm not asking that we add huge numbers to classrooms."

But the district can't wait until the November vote to shrink classes, since it could face stiff penalties for being out of compliance when school opens in August.

And teachers — who generally supported the initial 2002 constitutional amendment, along with large numbers of parents — still strongly want to keep the amendment in place, said Nick Whitman, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Faye Cook, a second-grade teacher at Graham Elementary School, said learning suffered as she and a colleague coped with 33 students in a single, cramped room this year.

"Keep the class-size amendment right where it is," she urged.

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

Hillsborough schools predict class-size limits will cost millions, upset parents 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 11:55pm]
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