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Pasco faces $4 million fine for not meeting class size mandate

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County school district faces a $4 million fine for failing to meet state class size requirements this fall.

The fine would be the fourth-largest among all 35 districts that did not comply with the rules, behind only Broward, Miami-Dade and Duval counties. Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson could reduce the amount if the district appeals and he finds that it made all appropriate efforts to follow the 2002 voter mandate.

That's what Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart is hoping for.

Luikart noted that he and his colleagues had every intention of following the amendment, which limits the number of students per class to 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high schools.

But shrinking local, state and federal revenue caused the board to eliminate several hundred teaching positions in order to balance the budget. The administration and board knew that could mean some classes would exceed the state caps.

The official October count revealed the district missed by almost 900 students.

To get fined for such a budgetary storm is "extremely frustrating," Luikart said. "It's stand up and get whipped."

The board faced a dilemma as it looked at its options, board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said.

Even amid reduced funding, she noted, many students, parents, teachers and residents stood up at budget town hall meetings demanding that the district retain its electives such as the arts.

"We could have stripped the other programs and put all that money into the core classes," Armstrong acknowledged. "But we felt it was more important to retain a balanced program for the students."

Most of the classes that were out of compliance were only a couple of students over, she added.

"We didn't do anything we felt would affect the quality of education in the core classes," she said.

If the fine stands, the district still could reduce it by 75 percent by submitting a compliance plan for 2012-13 before Feb. 15. Once the district adheres to that plan in the fall, the fine would automatically decline under state law.

The amount that ultimately is collected is to be distributed among the districts that met the mandate. Pasco schools complied with class size in 2010-11, and received $365,710 in the reallocation of funds that year.

Class sizes were averaged schoolwide until last year. A referendum to keep the school averages failed in 2010, with 55 percent of voters approving the proposal. It needed 60 percent to pass.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco faces $4 million fine for not meeting class size mandate 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 4:15pm]
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