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State lacks aid pledged to cut class sizes

Hernando County school officials are getting frustrated with the state's class-size reduction rules.

The School Board has hired several teachers to whittle the student-to-teacher ratio to the levels directed by lawmakers. But it has become stymied in its efforts to put each class in a room.

Relief appeared to be at hand last month when the state announced the "Classrooms for Kids" initiative, which would provide $6.1-million to the district for construction related to the class-size program. When the district's finance director submitted a plan to the state describing how Hernando wanted to use the money, though, she got what she characterized as a "surprising" response.

"They told me we couldn't spend it," finance director Carol MacLeod said Monday. "They sent (a note) back and said, "You can't do this. You can't do anything.' And they don't have the money."

The state has yet to issue the bonds it plans to sell to fund the classroom program, according to the e-mail MacLeod received from the Florida Department of Education. The district simply would have to try again.

"I was hoping if they wouldn't approve it _ at least they would tell me what we could use it for," MacLeod said. "I was surprised."

Board members, who already have borrowed $30-million to build a new K-8 campus for 1,400 children, had hoped to begin an aggressive program of school expansions with the $6.1-million. The idea called for adding wings at Chocachatti Elementary, Powell Middle and Central and Nature Coast Technical high schools.

Facilities director Graydon Howe said he could have had construction under way in weeks.

"The superintendent tried to take a lead in this, asking, "Can we use the money for this to get started on class reduction?' " Chairman John Druzbick said. "We got a memo saying, "No. In fact, don't do anything.' That's where we stand. But at least we're on record trying to initiate a plan."

Rather than fast-forwarding the process, board members instead have grown frustrated.

Board member Jim Malcolm said he had hoped the state would offer some guidance to help the district plan its growth properly. Instead, he said with sarcasm in his voice, "They've pledged $6-million to us but they don't have the $6-million. So there it is."

Druzbick suggested that the class-size amendment might be the problem.

"You would hope that they would either get rid of the class-size amendment . . . or they would come up with the revenue, as they tried to do this year, to help us," Druzbick said. "But right now, nothing is there."

MacLeod tackled the issues of growth and how to pay for it in a recent memo to the board. She said the administration is striving to make the best recommendations on how to use available and potentially available revenue sources, which could include a sales tax if voters approve.

She stressed that the district is not seeking to increase the property tax rate that landowners pay. She reiterated her opinion that the board was correct in its decision to issue certificates of participation to build its K-8 school, especially at a time "of known need and unknown direction from DOE."

"I will continue to press DOE for direction on the use and release of the other capital appropriations," MacLeod wrote.

In an interview, she predicted the issue of the class-size amendment soon could "get ugly" because districts must meet new rules based on their October head counts.

"But then they tell us we can't spend the money," she said. "So how on earth can we implement this?"

The School Board is slated to consider placing a sales tax referendum on the March 9 ballot when it meets tonight .

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or solocheksptimes.com.

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