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Bush orders FCAT to go on

With dozens of Florida schools scarred by hurricanes, the state is bending some rules to help them reopen. But Gov. Jeb Bush won't bend on one point: Students will have to take the FCAT.

Bush signed a new executive order Tuesday, imposing new rules for makeup days and delaying the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in some cases. The order also lifts state deadlines for class size reduction and for filing reports.

Bush, whose emphasis on the FCAT and school grades has been fiercely debated, praised the resiliency of Floridians. He said it would be a mistake to lower educational standards.

"I think we always underestimate the talents and the genius of children. We also do the same for teachers," Bush said. "They can respond to this challenge. They've already proven it."

A district that has canceled up to five days of school should make them up, Bush said, by using early release or planning days or shortening winter or spring vacations. Only districts that have canceled six or more days can apply for a waiver from the 180-day rule from the Department of Education.

Saturday classes were not specifically ruled out, but officials said local school boards should make that decision.

The Pinellas School Board voted Tuesday night to seek a waiver of three of the four days missed because of hurricanes, a request that appears to fall outside the new state rules.

If the waiver is denied, "we would look for other options," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley. The district has decided to make up one missed day Oct. 15, which was set aside as a professional staff development day.

Pasco students will make up two of three days lost to hurricane closures on Oct. 15 and Nov. 11, which is Veterans Day. Most Hillsborough students will not have to make up missed days, since the district has a longer school year than the 180-day state requirement.

In another consequence of storm season, FCAT tests will be given on a staggered schedule for the first time.

Districts that have missed five days or fewer will give the test as scheduled on Feb. 28. Districts that missed between six and 10 days will have one extra week to give the test and districts that missed 11 days or more will have two extra weeks.

DeSoto County has lost three weeks of classes. Charlotte and Volusia have missed 13 days each and Lee and Seminole nine each. Every county in Florida has missed at least one day because of hurricanes. Through Tuesday, a total of 338 school days were lost and six school districts remained closed because of Ivan or Frances.

Bush said schools, as a focal point of everyday life, can restore a sense of normalcy by opening as soon as possible.

Schools in Charlotte County finally opened Monday _ on double sessions _ more than five weeks after Hurricane Charley roared through.

David Mosrie, chief executive of the state association of school superintendents, endorsed Bush's new rules Tuesday, after the governor agreed to modify FCAT testing dates.

But a teachers union that has strongly opposed Bush's emphasis on FCAT testing, the Florida Education Association, said Bush was being "inflexible" on the FCAT issue.

"I think everybody in the state understands the trauma that we've undergone this summer, and a little more compassion might be in order," FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said. "He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand."

A larger question remained unanswered Tuesday: How much will it cost Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to rebuild their schools, and where will the money come from?

The costs remain unknown, but Bush said the state's finances are healthy enough to cover expenses because sales tax receipts have been more than $500-million above projections for the past six months.

"Demands are growing in a fast-growing state, but so does the revenue source to meet it," Bush said. "These storms aren't great news fiscally, don't get me wrong. But I do believe we have the resources to meet the challenge."

Times staff writer Monique Fields contributed to this report.