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Pinellas school superintendent backs more fundamentals, but not the class size amendment

ST. PETERSBURG — Give the people what they want. Unless research suggests you shouldn't.

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen hit those themes Thursday in addressing two vastly different topics — the expansion of fundamental schools and the high cost of the 2002 class-size amendment.

On the former, Janssen said the district should continue to add seats in fundamental schools — back-to-basics schools that put emphasis on parental involvement — as long as parents keep lining up to get into them.

"I really believe we need to give our families what they're asking for," she said.

But on the class-size amendment — which Florida voters approved by overwhelming margins — Janssen said the research doesn't justify the expense.

"I'm not sure there are any statistics out there that says 25 students in the class yields much higher student success than 30 students in the class," she said. "And because we're going to classroom by classroom (caps) next year, it's devastating."

Janssen, heading into her second year as superintendent, made both remarks while addressing a wide range of subjects during her first appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

Pinellas expanded the number of fundamental seats from 5,696 last fall to 7,176 this fall — the biggest one-year jump in the program's 33-year history. Besides easing growing parental demand, the increase will save the district money because most fundamental parents must provide their kids' transportation.

But some school board members quietly worry about potential tradeoffs. It's not clear how withdrawing thousands of involved parents and high-performing students will affect teachers and students in nonfundamental schools.

Janssen said the district is moving from "a scarcity model to a supply-and-demand model" and must offer more fundamental seats to counter competition from charter schools and private-school vouchers. More specifically, she said another fundamental high school may be needed to complement the lone program at Osceola High.

This year, more than 950 families applied for 450 ninth-grade slots at Osceola, up from 425 when it started four years ago, said Dan Evans, the assistant principal who oversees the fundamental program there.

"Next year we're going to have more than 1,000 applicants … and we'll have a lot of people who are disappointed," he said.

On class size, Pinellas will spend $113 million next year alone to pay for the additional teachers needed to meet the amendment's requirements. For perspective, the district cut $38.7 million out of next year's budget and is relying on a proposed increase in the property tax rate to keep from cutting more.

The amendment requires that by the start of the 2010 school year, core classes not exceed 18 students in prekindergarten through third grades, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school. Until now, districts were in compliance if they met those limits on a schoolwide average. But next year, they must meet them classroom by classroom.

Janssen said in an interview after her appearance that she supports past legislative proposals, expected to come up again next year, that would ask voters to replace the classroom caps with a schoolwide average.

"That's a help," she said. "I'd prefer they put something on the ballot that is anything but classroom by classroom."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas school superintendent backs more fundamentals, but not the class size amendment 08/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 4:35pm]
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