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Governor gets to work to make class size amendment a reality

Gov. Jeb Bush has put aside any "devious plans" to shelve the class size amendment.

Now that it's in the state Constitution, Bush is full steam ahead to reduce the number of students in Florida classrooms. Though he led the fight against the amendment, Bush said Tuesday that it's time to fulfill voters' wishes.

That included sitting down with the same teachers union that tried to unseat him.

"I'm governor of everyone," Bush said.

Even those who disagree with him.

Florida Education Association leader Maureen Dinnen said she thinks Bush will make the constitutional amendment a reality. Other amendments, such as one that made English the state's official language, have been ignored by Tallahassee.

"I think the governor is going to obey the law as we all do," Dinnen said.

Florida's main teachers union has long complained that Bush has denied it a seat at his policymaking table. Bush and Dinnen estimated that it had been two or three years since they had even sat down to talk.

The union threw its money and support behind Democrat Bill McBride in his bid to deny Bush a second term. Even some Democrats thought the relationship between McBride and the union was too cozy.

Bush was so opposed to the class size amendment that he talked in an unguarded moment of "devious plans" to derail the plan if it passed. The remarks were later publicized, and Bush said he regretted them.

Now, with a deadline looming _ the first phase of the class size initiative must be in place when students return to school next fall _ it's time to put aside differences and work toward a solution, Bush and Dinnen said.

"We have more in common than maybe a month before the election we would have wanted to admit," Bush said, then quickly added with a laugh, "Maybe not."

Cost estimates for the plan range from $8-billion to $27.5-billion over the eight-year phase-in period. No one knows yet how the state will pay for it or what incremental steps must be taken before the 2010 deadline for full implementation.

"I think it depends on what "it' is," said House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, in a meeting with Bush and Senate President Jim King.

Bush and Dinnen agreed that the first thing to do is clarify any vague language in the amendment, figure out exactly how big classes are now _ counties calculate sizes differently _ and get public input on exactly what it requires. They also agreed to more meetings.

Then the state, with public input, can start figuring out how to reduce class sizes, Bush said. He and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan are scheduled to hold a meeting this morning with members of the Superintendents Association, the School Board Association, the Parent Teacher Association and the School Administrators Association.

Senate Democratic leader Ron Klein of Delray Beach said he's encouraged that Bush is reaching out quickly to educators.

"The public needs to be part of the process," Klein said. "This is the first day. All the right signals are there."

But Bush isn't ready to discuss how he'll pay for it.

Bush, King and Byrd have not been willing to rule out anything, including expanded gambling or higher taxes.

The class size cap is the biggest wrinkle lawmakers will have to deal with this year.

In a speech to senators, King warned that several expensive amendments, combined with a tough economy, will lead to some "tough votes."

"Republicans, we're going to have to think differently than in the past," King told senators.

"An increase in taxes, though certainly not what any of us wants, will have to be considered," he added.