LAND O'LAKES — For fourth- and fifth-graders only, three Pasco County elementary schools will extend their class days by 50 minutes this year.
Cox, Gulfside and Lacoochee elementary schools exceeded minimum instructional hours for children in kindergarten through third grade, officials said, making it unnecessary to add more time for those children.
"We were already at 964 hours," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said Tuesday. "We met the requirement."
Florida law mandates that the state's 300 elementary schools with the lowest FCAT reading results must provide an extra hour of daily reading instruction. For the primary grades, which meet for a minimum of 720 hours per year, that means expanding to 900 hours.
For the intermediate grades, which must offer a minimum of 900 hours, that means extending to 1,080 hours.
Pasco district officials had worried that they would need to find $1 million to fund teacher salaries and bus routes associated with the longer days for all six grade levels.
By limiting the later dismissal to fourth and fifth grades, and then restructuring instruction to add the reading hour in the other grades, the projected cost dropped to a maximum of $350,000.
"I think it will come in less than that," superintendent Kurt Browning said.
The district can limit its use of its operational budget, he explained, by tapping into its new state Digital Classroom funds, which can pay for technology and materials for the new program.
The Pasco School Board approved the new bell schedules Tuesday, along with a revised balanced budget reflecting the expense.
The $1.2 billion budget included a tax rate decrease of about 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, meaning the owner of a $175,000 home would pay $36.40 less this year. Property values rose by 4.77 percent, though, generating more revenue with the lower rate.
Student enrollment is projected to rise by 925, as well, bringing in added state funds per child, although much of that will pass to charter and private schools through choice programs.
Many of the funds are set aside for specific purposes, leaving little wiggle room for expenses such as raises, which remain a point of contract negotiations.
No one from the public spoke about the budget, or the extended-day program.
Larson said that the plan for Cox, Gulfside and Lacoochee aims to increase reading time and tie it to other subject areas. It will include more training and support for teachers, and also help students better use technology and research in addition to improving their reading skills.
"It's not just adding time," she said. "It is what we are going to do with that time."
The schools still must meet with parents to deal with their needs relating to longer days. The district is examining ways to provide free after-school care programs for families that cannot have their children arrive home at different times.
Children who scored Level 5 in reading on the FCAT will not have to attend the extended hour. However, Larson said, she expected families to support the district's effort to expand technology and research skills, and not take their children out.
"We see this as an incredible possibility for kids," she said. "The biggest challenge with this is the timing."
Districts did not learn which schools were on the Lowest 300 list for reading until mid-July, well into the budget planning process.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.