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Schools caught between class-size limits and shrinking budgets

LAND O'LAKES — In balancing its budget this year, the Pasco School Board put off hiring 200 new teachers that would have helped the district meet the state's class-size reduction amendment as it moved to the classroom level.

The move let the board spend $12-million in other parts of the budget, limiting the district's need for broader reductions including layoffs.

But lawmakers postponed further implementation of the amendment for only one year.

And as Pasco officials ponder how they will deal with a steadily worsening revenue stream — the latest estimates suggest another $8-million to $12-million cut will come around December — they worry in particular about what to do when the Legislature's one-year delay expires.

Without an extension, chief financial officer Olga Swinson said Thursday, "We wouldn't make it. We don't have the money."

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who during her tenure in the state House promoted legislation to scale back the amendment, called for changes to the amendment, which requires K-3 classrooms of no more than 18 children, fourth- through eighth-grade classes of no more than 22 children, and high school classes no larger than 25 teens.

"Schoolwide (class-size average) is something that is reasonable and that most districts can do," Fiorentino said.

The topic is not far from lawmakers' minds. Some Wesley Chapel students even brought it up during a forum with their elected officials Wednesday.

Even those who support the amendment won't rule out postponing it longer — or making more drastic changes. That's particularly notable in the Senate, which has proven the graveyard for changes to the class-size rule each year since it won voter approval in 2002.

Sen. Victor Crist, who represents much of central and east Pasco, said he does not favor changes to lessen the class-size amendment. Growing up, Crist said, he benefited from smaller classes, and he thinks all children should have that opportunity.

That said, Crist — who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee — acknowledged the need to cope with revenue shortfalls that could exceed $2-billion beyond where they are now. And his priorities center on health and human service necessities and the criminal justice system.

"Everything else is on the table," Crist said. "Now that any cut we make is going to draw blood, we've got to be strategic."

Sen. Mike Fasano, who represents west Pasco, offered a more blunt opinion on the subject.

"It's going to have to change," said Fasano, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee. "We do need to look at reforming the class-size amendment."

He favored asking voters to change the terms, focusing the effort on elementary schools, where research suggests smaller class sizes have more lasting impact. He guessed that voters would support such an amendment, especially now.

Fasano, who is close to the incoming Senate president, also expected that the new-look Senate would be more amenable to legislative fixes that the House has pitched in the past.

"You're going to see the attitude of the Senate change," he said.

Possible tweaks

Senate Education Appropriations chairman Stephen Wise of Jacksonville saw few good answers to this "real problem."

Lawmakers could ask voters to reconsider the amendment, he said, but that would require buy-in from all the major players, such as teachers and parents, and it probably couldn't get done before the next school year. School districts might rely on more virtual classes, he continued, but the question remains how many parents would want their elementary-age children to go to school on the computer.

He called last spring's House proposal to set a date for counting students and then to allow class sizes to grow after that point "maybe the only thing" that could work in the short term.

Area House members looked forward to the Senate coming around on the issue.

"In general, that body has not been willing to pass that bill," said Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who's considered a future House speaker. "My hope is this year they will be willing to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem."

Weatherford said he would support measuring class size at the school level rather than moving to classroom counts.

House Education vice chairman John Legg, a New Port Richey Republican, expected such legislation will come, even if he must carry the measure himself.

"During these tough economic times, the reality of implementing the class-size amendment at the class level is unrealistic," Legg said.

Thirty-nine counties, including Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough, opposed the class-size amendment in 2002. It passed statewide by 232,530 votes. Since then, polls have shown a growing level of support for reduced class sizes.

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

Schools caught between class-size limits and shrinking budgets 10/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 3:18pm]

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