LAND O'LAKES — Principal David Salerno spent the first weeks of school seeking ways to get Rushe Middle School in compliance with Florida's class size requirements.
After losing 11 staff members over the summer to budget cuts, though, Salerno found that the 1,300-student school couldn't meet the mark. He set math classes as a priority, making sure none exceeded the state cap of 22 students per teacher.
Other courses would just have to be larger, the school's leadership team decided. Social studies classes, for instance, reach 29 students. Some science rooms have 26 students.
"It has been challenging," Salerno said Friday, the final day of the state's class size audit. "It's not something we want to do. It's something we really have to do."
The district's funding shrank by about $55 million this year, prompting the Pasco County School Board to eliminate hundreds of teaching positions. As a result, superintendent Heather Fiorentino repeatedly stated that while class sizes remained important, she could not guarantee all classrooms would comply with the 2002 voter mandate.
Board members, who have supported efforts to let class sizes be set as a schoolwide average, backed that stance even while knowing that noncompliance could lead to state fines.
Last year, districts that did not meet the class size rules were penalized about $3,000 per student over the cap. If they submitted a plan to the Florida Department of Education detailing how they would try to comply this year, they got the fine reduced by 75 percent.
Districts that fully followed the law got a share of the $7.83 million taken from the ones that failed. Last year Pasco received $365,710 in the reallocation.
This year, Pasco officials aren't expecting a similar result. And the fines will likely be higher: $4,800 in grades K-3 and $4,400 in grades 4-12 for each student above the cap.
Despite schools' best attempts to comply, many are falling short — some in several classes, others in just a handful and by only a couple of students. As of Friday morning, when the latest figures were available, the district was 986 students over in the state's fall class-by-class counts, from a total enrollment of 66,788.
Seven Oaks Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, the district's second-largest elementary with more than 900 students, had too many kindergarteners until it got a new teacher, allowing that grade level to meet the 18-1 ratio. But the school remained three students over in second grade and two students over in fourth, principal B.J. Smith said.
That means a few classrooms have one more student than permitted by the amendment — not nearly enough to warrant another added teaching spot.
Smith wasn't overly concerned, though.
"Our teachers still do what is best for kids," she said, noting that until recently Seven Oaks usually had 23 or 24 students per class and maintained an A grade from the state. "The school average works."
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.
Nearby Wiregrass Ranch High School, the county's largest high school with nearly 2,100 students, fell slightly short of the state mandate even after the Legislature removed hundreds of courses from the class size caps. That change allowed many courses to surpass the 25-1 ratio set for the core curriculum required for graduation.
At Wiregrass Ranch, many such courses exceed 30 students. Some with less demand are smaller. None approach the 40 to 50 student counts that some South Florida schools have complained about, or that some Pasco schools endured in the past.
Of the school's 219 core courses, 208 met the requirement. Most of the rest were over by one or two students.
Principal Ray Bonti said counselors tried to place students into alternatives, such as virtual school, or to alter their schedules to keep the class sizes on target.
"The hard part with any high school … is that kids come and go," Bonti said. "Ones that come in come with needs we couldn't project for."
That moving target makes the class size rules very difficult to accomplish, he said.
Some schools still were able to comply. Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel was among those.
"We have met class size in all of our classrooms," principal Donna Busby said. "We were given an additional teacher to make sure we did."
District officials expected to have final results on class size compliance next week.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.