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School officials taking message to Tallahassee

When a parent gives six children an allowance and five of them fritter it away, should all six get punished by losing the allowance?

That's just what state lawmakers have done to Florida school districts, Citrus County School Board member Patience Nave said.

When the Legislature this year rewrote rules to decide when a school is crowded and a new school can be built, it punished all school districts _ not just the districts that made poor financial decisions.

Nave sees the Citrus school system as one of the good children who saved their allowance instead of blowing it on bubble gum.

She thinks the state should reconsider its way of calculating usable student space in schools so that Citrus and other counties that need new schools can build space to house their overflowing student populations.

Nave, her colleagues and Superintendent Pete Kelly plan to take their case to Tallahassee as legislators gather this week for a special session on the state's complex school crowding problem.

"They're trying to tell us that we need to be accountable for the funds that are given to us, but we have been," Nave said.

"When I go up there, that's what I want to tell them .

.

. don't take the money away from all of us because someone built a crystal palace or a $35-million school."

Citrus officials want the rules changed because they believe they are ready to plan the county's next elementary school. They have scrambled this year to cope with a snowballing elementary school population, especially in northern and central Citrus County.

Just after school started, the board voted to move new students in Beverly Hills to Lecanto Primary School to alleviate packed conditions at Citrus Springs Elementary School.

Kelly has also set limits for those schools so that additional steps can be taken if the growth doesn't slow.

But despite the conditions at Citrus Springs Elementary, the new state formula says Citrus County needs no additional classroom space.

That infuriates Michael Imparato, chairman of the elementary school's advisory/enhancement council.

"You cannot play politics with education," he said.

At Citrus Springs, some students attend class in closets. One of those closets has a wall of electrical panels. Teachers eat lunch in a closet without air conditioning or heat. Eight portable buildings are used.

Under the state's formula, the portables could be removed and the students in the portables moved into the school, and there would still be room for 46 more children.

"It's insane to think that way," Imparato said.

He has written to many state officials to express his frustration with the state formula. Commissioner of Education Frank Brogan is the only one who has responded.

"It's just so counterproductive," Imparato said of the state's efforts.

Citrus Springs principal Lane Vick isn't traveling to talk to state lawmakers next week, but she has a very clear message for them.

"I want them to remember the children," she said. "Sometimes I feel our legislators don't look at a site and think of what our children need. . . I'd like to make sure they are reminded."

Time for a new school

"Our biggest concern is the way the state looks at counting classroom space," School Board Chairman Mark Stone said. "That hurt us, the fact that they're counting technical rooms and music rooms as classroom spaces."

Before the state changed the numbers, Stone said the district was ready to start planning a new elementary school. Officials already have begun looking in central Citrus at Citrus Hills, Pine Ridge and Citrus Springs for new school sites.

"We were in a position to put into place a three-year plan to build a new elementary school. . . and that would have really eased the burden on us," he said. "We're just sitting back and waiting now to see what's going to happen."

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel, who will not travel to Tallahassee because of another commitment, said she was unhappy that work the district has done might have to be scrapped because of the state's actions.

"We have our plant survey, and a lot of time and effort was put into that. . . and now it's got to be on hold," Himmel said.

Nave said she thinks the state needs to let districts decide what they need.

"The wise thing would be for them to let us anticipate where we're going to be in two years . . . so that two years from now, we don't have people crying asking why we didn't do this . . . If we started making plans right now for an elementary school, when it opened in two years it would be filled."

She said she was confident that the rules for counting school space will be changed during the special session. Nave said she had heard that lawmakers were willing to take some school spaces such as resource rooms, art, music and gymnasiums off the list of areas considered available for housing students.

"That's a biggie right there," Nave said. "Obviously, they didn't realize the implications of doing that."

Board member Carl Hansen also is unhappy.

A district cannot build a school until it has enough students to fill it.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why schools are crowded the day they're opened," Hansen said. "We're in a much worse position than most people realize . . . Just look at the number of portables and look at the (student count) and the growth rate. . . and keep in mind it takes two years to build a school."

Board member Sheila Whitelaw said she was unhappy that lawmakers chose to deal with the Florida crowding by creating a way to deny a problem exists. "Yes, I believe schools are overcrowded, and you have to look only as far as Citrus Springs Elementary School to verify that," she said.

The real effect of saying that more students can fit in schools now is an increase in the number of students per class.

"We've seen a movement in this state to reduce class size," Whitelaw said. "This contradicts what they've been pushing for in class size reductions."

Even efforts to push education reform by allowing charter schools has focused more attention on the need for small classes. "In charter schools, all of them emphasize a low student-to-teacher ratio," Whitelaw said.

She said she didn't know how much success the Citrus contingent would have in Tallahassee, but she looked forward to hearing the debate.

Hansen predicted that the Citrus entourage would have little sway with lawmakers.

"I don't think this trip is going to have a big effect, but it will not be for want of trying," Hansen said.

A voice to be heard

One reason Citrus officials are traveling to the special session is because they worry that the needs and viewpoint of small school districts can easily be lost, and school crowding is too crucial an issue to ignore.

"There are a lot of things that I want to get across up there," Nave said. "We're small, and a lot of times small up there is overlooked.

.

. we want (them) to know that we may be small but we're here.

"We want them to know one size does not fit all."

Stone said the Citrus group was eager to complain about a change in the law that is phasing out the use of capital dollars for maintenance costs. That means districts must rely more on the dollars used to run programs, buy supplies and pay employees to pay for school maintenance.

This year, the gradual shift of dollars allowed the district to spend only $2-million from capital funds for maintenance, about $400,000 less than what was needed.

By early the next decade, no dollars will be permitted for transfer from the capital fund to maintenance.

Stone said that the maintenance issue was one that was more important to small districts than large ones, and that was one of the reasons Citrus officials planned their Tallahassee visit _ to keep lawmakers aware of the entire spectrum of money issues affecting school districts of all sizes.

Nave has scheduled appointments with several key lawmakers to discuss her ideas. "I'm going to see some people, and I just want them to know that Citrus County is on the map and we're working to be accountable," she said.

She said she plans to invite state Rep. William Andrews, who has pushed for the changes facing school districts, to come to Citrus County and see how school construction is handled.

Hansen said he understood that lawmakers were trying to stop school districts from mismanaging their money. But because some "have done that, are you going to shoot them all?"

Citrus County has been spending state construction money properly. If lawmakers don't like what money has been spent on, then they need to change the law, he said.

"This does have to get out because it's wrong what they seem to be trying to do," Hansen said. "This was the year (the Legislature) was going to do something for education. . . Instead of doing it for education they did it to education."

Finding solutions

Among the solutions state legislators are expected to discuss this week are proposals to allow school boards to raise sales taxes a half cent per dollar without voter approval, various bond options and ideas that would put lottery money toward building schools.

None of those ideas got favorable response from Citrus County school Board members.

"Frankly, I think it's a cop-out, sloughing off on school districts the responsibility for allocating funds for schools," Hansen said.

Sales taxes take a bigger chunk from poor people, and, Hansen noted, "I'm not sure that's the best way to go about funding our schools."

Whitelaw opposed the tax idea as well, but for different reasons. Although she said she didn't appreciate the burden of funding school construction to fall on the district, she said a district would have to have shown a history of responsible decisions.

"We definitely have some needs in our schools .

.

. but I also see some areas where we do have some waste," she said.

Whitelaw was one of the primary critics of the district's decision to spend $7-million on reconstructing Inverness Middle School, a project that did little to increase student capacity.

Another of the solutions being discussed in Tallahassee is to borrow money against lottery dollars. Whitelaw said that would be wrong _ because the lottery was sold to Florida as an enhancement of education, not a way to fund basics such as classroom construction.

"That wouldn't speak to the spirit of the lottery," Whitelaw said.

Bond issues also did not capture the interest of School Board members.

"Bonds, pure and simple, wherever the money comes from, are debt, and debt requires debt service and that means interest," Hansen said. "It's hard to come up with any worse way to spend tax dollars than that.

"We've had growth in this state, and not unexpected growth. If you plan and you prepare, you don't need this. Debt service goes directly into the pockets of the lenders," he said. "To do this just because the Legislature failed to provide for growth that it knew was coming is again a cop-out."

Stone said that because of wise decisions, Citrus County is not as bad off as other counties in the state.

"We've been frugal with the money, and I think that any district would kill to be in the financial position we're in," Stone said. "We virtually owe no one anything."

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