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Proponents of class-size change amendment make last-ditch push

ST. PETERSBURG — With the sun blazing and cars whizzing behind him, Florida's education chief made a last-ditch effort Friday to sway voters to loosen class-size restrictions.

"The rigidity and the bureaucracy of a hard cap definition of class size is challenging," Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said, standing before a podium on the sidewalk in front of St. Petersburg High School.

He called for a "yes" vote on Amendment 8, promising to "maintain a solid, statewide commitment to class size but at the same time be able to have reasoned, educated judgment about what's in the best interest for children."

That it was difficult to hear his message over the noise of traffic flowing along Fifth Avenue North seemed almost fitting.

In an election season buried by partisan politics and high-profile faceoffs, the debate surrounding Amendment 8 has been comparatively quiet.

Sure, the main proponents of the Nov. 2 ballot proposal that would let schools calculate class size as an average tell reporters they're confident. But when asked for details they comment instead about the grass roots push they expect to carry the day.

Meanwhile, the opposition simply points to several polls that show Amendment 8 drawing less than the 60 percent required to pass.

If it fails, it leaves plenty of questions unanswered for Florida schools. Do they have to meet the class-size limits every day? Are the class-size levels set forth in the Constitution caps or goals? Who is responsible legally if a classroom misses the mark?

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This is the first year since class-size restrictions became law six years ago that Florida's schools must ensure that each and every single class is held at 18 in K-3, 22 in Grades 4-8 and 25 in high school. The state has spent nearly $19 billion to shrink them, though right now it's not clear how many districts are in compliance.

Both sides of the class-size debate agree on one thing: Something needs to be done to make maintaining class sizes more manageable.

"Common sense needs to be infused in this," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, which is fighting Amendment 8.

He disputes that the only way to ease the burden is to change the original amendment and points to the Florida Supreme Court opinion blessing the 2002 initiative as guidance.

Lawmakers could rewrite laws to maintain small classes without punishing schools that try but fail, Meyer said. Financial penalties don't exist in the amendment, for instance, but they're in the law.

But state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, a major cheerleader for the "yes" vote, argues that the "only way to fix class size" is through Amendment 8. He contends the 2002 language stating the "maximum number of students who are assigned to each teacher" by grade level cannot be undone by legislative action.

At Friday's press conference, Smith was flanked by Weatherford, Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen, three Pinellas County School Board members and two business leaders.

School Board co-chairwoman Carol Cook argued that one common misconception is that if Amendment 8 passes, schools will automatically add five more students to each class. "That's not the case," she said. "It gives flexibility as to whether you have student number 19 in kindergarten through second grade."

Yet if Amendment 8 fails, Weatherford conceded, "we will possibly look at other statutory fixes."

Former state Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, tried that in 2008. His bill would have required schools to aim for the constitutional limits each October and then given them wiggle room if extra students arrived afterward.

It won the backing of all major state education groups, including teachers. The House unanimously supported the idea, but the Senate wouldn't consider it.

Newly elected to the state Senate, Simmons, a lawyer, said he prefers the clarity of Amendment 8 to any bill. But he also agreed that the Legislature can make changes to eliminate some of the difficult class-size issues that schools now face.

"There are absurd results if you interpret it the way it is being interpreted right now," Simmo said.

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Amen to that, said Hope Schooler, principal of Gulf Trace Elementary School in Pasco County. With her student population in constant churn — the school has an annual mobility rate of about 12 percent — meeting class size daily is no easy task. The school's enrollment bounced between a high of 614 and a low of 595 during the first quarter.

"We want those smaller class sizes," said Schooler, who tracks comings and goings and class sizes on several spreadsheets each morning. "But give us some flexibility. … Any classroom can change on any given day."

As a state, Florida sees about 7 percent of its students shift during a given year. Many schools have almost no movement, but Tarpon Springs High School in Pinellas County has a 15 percent mobility rate.

Now, when new students enroll, guidance counselors try to put them in classes with space, said principal Clint Herbic. Online courses help, he said, but sometimes kids end up not getting what they need. And occasionally, the students might wind up temporarily in a class that's over the cap while waiting for someone to leave, as often happens, to avoid disruptions.

"These are considerations they never thought of when that law was passed," Herbic said.

Dealing with high mobility over time makes the task seem easier, said Shaw Elementary School principal Holly Saia.

The northeast Tampa school grew by 55 students in the first 20 days of classes. Its mobility rate is near 20 percent.

"We're constantly in a state of fluctuation," Saia said. "It's a juggling act."

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

Proponents of class-size change amendment make last-ditch push 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 11:58pm]

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