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Board needs rational view of smaller-class mandate

The Hernando County School Board, like its counterparts throughout the state, is faced with the daunting prospect of turning the voters' decision on smaller class sizes into a reality. Much is still unknown about how Amendment 9 will affect the school districts, but one thing is clear: It's going to take a lot of money to make it work.

That could mean spending cuts, a tax increase or a combination of both.

Another obvious point is that the state will be looking for ways to shove these distasteful decisions onto the school districts rather than make the tough choices itself. Expect to hear the mantra of "local control" a lot in the coming months.

The first step for the School Board should be to pause and take a deep breath. This is not the time for hasty decisions on important existing projects, or others that may be in the pipeline. It may be years before the full impacts of Amendment 9 and Amendment 8, which establishes a voluntary Pre-K program for 4-year-olds, are clear.

The board and superintendent also should not blame residents for putting them in this unenviable position. While it is true that voters approved the amendment, they did so knowing that the amendment carried an enormous price tag. That message was driven home repeatedly by opponents during the runup to the Nov. 5 election. Despite the varying predictions of the costs, from $8-billion to $27.5-billion depending on who was speaking, voters knew it would not be a cheap fix, and they approved it anyway.

In Hernando County, early estimates are that it will take at least 135 additional teachers to reduce class sizes to the mandated levels of 18 children per class through third grade, 22 students for grades 4-8, and 25 students in high school classes. The extra payroll for teachers will be about $5-million, and that does not include money the School Board will need to supply additional classrooms.

The most realistic way to see the vote is as a message from frustrated Floridians who have been bombarded for years by reports on how the state's educational system is failing its children and the taxpayers.

Voters are fed up with hearing our state's humiliating rankings, from graduation rates and testing to teacher salaries and class sizes. Those who were around when the Florida Lottery was born recall the promises made then about how the revenues would enhance education, only to be fooled by the dastardly Lottery two-step _ funds went in the front door while an equal amount went out the back.

Few would argue that reducing the size of classes is an educational cure-all, but millions of voters believe it is a start. Would any real efforts have been made in cutting class sizes without the amendment? Not likely. The voters want action, and the amendment, despite its flaws, is a mandate for change.

That's where the School Board comes in.

In the months ahead, there may be calls for slashing from the budget everything that does not deal directly with the twin priorities of the FCAT and, now, smaller classes. Perceived luxuries, such as art and music programs, extracurricular activities and other enhancements will be targets. Funds for innovative programs, such as the reading initiative, already are being challenged.

Everything will be in play, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But the board should take care not to overreact. Board members are sounding an appropriately cautious tone and are well-advised to take a much closer look at expenditures while they await direction from the state on how to cope with Amendment 9.

The governor lobbied hard against the measure during the election, so he can be expected to try to weaken its implications at every turn. Other detractors in Tallahassee will have a crack at it as well.

The onus will be on our legislative delegation _ Rep. David Russell Jr., Rep. Charlie Dean, Sen. Paula Dockery and Sen. Mike Fasano _ to protect our interests as more populous areas in the state maneuver to scoop up whatever funds emerge to deal with the class size fixes.

School districts around the state are entering uncharted waters. They should proceed with caution.