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School districts: Are they too big?

In his first year as superintendent of Hillsborough County's schools, Earl Lennard promised to visit every school in the district.

It wasn't easy. The busy school chief had to visit two, three, sometimes four schools a week, 160 schools in all.

"Yeah, it was tough; you have to make a special effort to do that when you have 160 schools," Lennard said.

For school superintendents in several Florida school districts, which are among the largest in the nation, getting around to all the campuses is a feat of endurance.

Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley, who heads the nation's 22nd largest district, makes a point of visiting each school at least once every three years.

Some educators and lawmakers think no superintendent or school board should have to try to keep up with that many schools. They think districts of a certain size lose something in terms of responsiveness and accessibility.

Are some of Florida's school districts just too big?

Members of two high-powered groups, the Governor's Education Commission and the Constitution Revision Commission, think so. They have proposed allowing voters in those districts to carve them into smaller, more manageable pieces.

A change like that would require amending the Florida Constitution. And it would be a complicated political and financial minefield to break up a district.

But the smaller-is-better idea has support.

"You cannot convince me that we would create the same system we have now, if we had it to do all over again," said state Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "A county system allows a certain economy of scale, but once you reach a certain size, you lose that.

"What you end up with is a behemoth that loses the relationship between the citizens and the district, between parents and the district. I think it's worth a look."

Florida's situation "unusual'

Florida and Alabama have the same number of counties, 67. But Alabama has 127 school districts while Florida has 67.

That's because Alabama's school district lines don't always follow county lines. Sometimes they are confined to the city limits, or the rough outlines of a town or community. Every few years, a community will go to court to break off and form its own school district.

That is the way it works in most states.

But in Florida the school district lines and county lines are the same. So Florida ended up with some tiny school districts (Lafayette County has about 1,100 schoolchildren) and some of the biggest in the nation (Dade County has about 345,000 students).

"Florida's situation is unusual," said Herb Walberg, research professor of education at the University of Illinois, who studied the issue. "You have many of the largest school systems in the nation, and I don't think that's good for kids. In some of the larger districts, like Chicago, the board members can't even name all the schools."

State Rep. Tom Warner, R-Stuart, wants to change that _ or at least give voters a chance to change it.

Small districts can band together to form a larger district. But the Constitution does not allow larger districts to be divided.

Warner thinks the logic that favors smaller classrooms and smaller schools applies to smaller school districts.

"In Martin County people know who their board members are," said Warner, who represents parts of Martin County (15,000 students) and Palm Beach County (140,000 students). "But I think the people of Palm Beach feel disconnected, the system is so large. They feel they don't have any say in how the system operates."

For three years, Warner has worked to get the Legislature to support breaking up districts. He has had limited success.

"I think that would be of grave concern to minorities," said Tom Weightman, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and former superintendent of midsize Pasco County. "There's always a danger of separating the haves and have-nots."

"How do you divide up debt and school buildings and ensure equity?" said Steve Swartzel, lobbyist for Pinellas County schools. "We've got the court order (desegregating the schools) that already divides the county in two. What would happen with that if you tried to divide it into fourths or fifths? Could you imagine the public hearing on that one?"

The bill Warner introduced last year addresses the question of desegregation orders, saying that any dividing of a district would have to be approved by a court with an eye on such court orders. But it is unclear whether that would be enough to prevent white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods from becoming truly segregated as separate school districts, as has happened in other states.

Some, though not opposed to the idea, just don't think it would improve education.

"It's an interesting idea, but on its own it's not going to improve test scores," said Jeb Bush, Republican candidate for governor. "It has to be part of a more substantive package. I think we need to start with smaller classes and smaller schools."

Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay said through a spokesman that he had not fully studied the issue.

13 districts would be affected

Large districts such as Pinellas and Hillsborough address the size issue by dividing their counties into manageable parts. "Area superintendents" or "area directors" act as administrators and trouble-shooters overseeing schools in geographic zones.

Even some who like the concept of smaller districts think it might be unworkable.

"I like the idea on the face of it. Smaller government certainly is more popular," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "But more districts means more administration, and I don't think anybody wants that."

Warner argues that breaking up the larger districts would save money and cut down on administration. According to his analysis, enormous districts (those with 100,000 students or more) spend more on administration because they have to add layers of bureaucracy, such as area superintendents.

Warner's proposal would allow the breaking up of any district with more than 45,000 students, which would affect 13 districts. He envisions Dade possibly being divided into as many as 22 districts, Hillsborough into nine, and Pinellas into seven _ if local voters approve.

Smaller districts might have an advantage when they go to voters to try to get tax increases approved.

Even before Santa Rosa County voters went to the polls, Superintendent Bennett Russell knew the local sales tax increase would pass. He didn't have sophisticated polls. He knew because voters told him so _ at chicken dinners, high school football games and civic association meetings. His district has 23,000 students and 26 schools.

Although some large districts, such as Hillsborough, have passed tax initiatives, and small ones, such as De Soto County, have failed, educators in smaller counties think their size may have helped them.

"I just think in a smaller district you have more of a community situation," said Steve Ratliff, assistant superintendent for Santa Rosa schools. "The larger districts have a lot of different communities, and I can imagine how hard it would be to get all those communities going in the same direction."

State of the big districts

Florida has some of the largest school districts in the nation. Only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have larger districts than Florida's Dade County district. Below are Florida's largest districts, and some of west-central Florida's districts, and the number of students in the 1996-97 school year.

District Students State rank U.S. rank

Dade 341,000 1st 4th

Broward 218,000 2nd 6th

Hillsborough 148,000 3rd 12th

Palm Beach 138,000 4th 14th

Orange 129,000 5th 16th

Duval 126,000 6th 17th

Pinellas 107,000 7th 22nd

Pasco 44,000 14th 106th

Hernando 16,000 30th NA

Citrus 14,000 32nd NA

Source: Florida Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education.