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Keep co-teaching, board pleads

The Hernando County School Board got the chance Thursday to bend the ear of a local legislator regarding state funding and other issues of concern.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, was receptive to the board's concerns during a workshop meeting at Nature Coast Technical High School, saying she would do what she could to address the problems that board members identified.

The board said its most immediate concern is a rule that the state Education Department adopted recently that removes co-teaching as a method for complying with state class size reduction requirements. The rule is slated to go into effect next school year.

Co-teaching is an arrangement that allows two teachers to be in the same classroom to instruct students at different levels. The classroom might have 30 students, but because it has two teachers, the ratio of students to teachers is considered 15 to 1. If the new rule passes, all co-teaching arrangements will have to be divided.

"We have over 150 co-teaching arrangements," School Board Chairman Jim Malcolm said. "If that goes into effect for next school year, we will need to build an additional 150 classrooms. We would have to go with portables because we couldn't build bricks and mortar fast enough. That bill really puts us in a bind."

Board Vice Chairman John Druzbick added that the proposed law, which would cost the district about $10-million in building expenses, has no phase-in process.

Dockery said she likes the concept of co-teaching and is in favor of an amendment that would maintain its status.

"I'm very supportive of that," she said, "and I'll do what I can."

The Education Department should have a decision about co-teaching by the end of this year's legislative session in May. Malcolm said after Thursday's meeting that if the Education Department continues to insist on removing the co-teaching option, the Hernando district will support filing a lawsuit against the state.

Another issue the board spoke strongly about was the imbalance in the state's per-student funding formula.

"We rank 66th out of 67 (counties) in the state," Malcolm said. "I find that quite shocking. Here we've indicated what that means to us in dollars and cents."

According the school board, Hernando's funding per student is $291 less than Pasco County, $256 less than Citrus County, $127 less than Sumter County and $362 below the state average.

"This is a hit we get every year," Druzbick said. "If we were funded like Citrus County, which we are very similar to, we would get $5-million more."

Dockery said the formula for disbursement is complicated.

"To give to someone you have to take away from someone else," she said. "So it's a tough one. We need to get away from looking at other counties for comparison and make sure each county is funded for what is appropriate."

Dockery explained that during the past two years, the state changed its formula to provide more money to smaller counties by taking money from the three largest districts, and now the state is battling a lawsuit regarding that change.

Druzbick said Hernando's poor funding level makes it difficult to compete with higher teacher salaries paid in neighboring counties.

"Our teachers rank 60th in pay. . . . It's hard to keep teachers here, in that respect," he said. "And it's hard to get teachers to come here. . . . They can go 15 minutes north or south and get paid more."

Next on the board's agenda with Dockery was unfunded or underfunded state mandates with which the district must comply.

"It's taking money out of our bottom line when we don't get additional revenue to pay for additional programs," Druzbick said.

The board listed a handful of mandates - such as refingerprinting employees every five years, which costs $56,000, and background screenings, which cost $40,000 last year - to give Dockery some examples of mandates the district believes the state should pay for.

"I'm not saying these things are bad," said Druzbick. "They're good programs that just came with little or no funding."

The board also discussed with the senator the state Board of Education's plan to give some teachers bonuses based solely on students' performance on standardized tests.

The plan, which is supposed to go into effect next year, will pay the top 10 percent of teachers whose students show the most improvement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test a bonus of 5 percent of their salary.

"I think we already put far too much emphasis on the FCAT, and this just ratchets that up another notch," Malcolm said.

Brian Phillips, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, who sat in the audience for the meeting, also said he had concerns with the state's plan for bonuses.

"I'm against any performance pay plan that doesn't include all teachers," he said after the meeting. "Do you pay a fireman for how many fires he puts out or for the work he does?"

Phillips said two of the problems he sees are that the bonus money will end up coming out of the other 90 percent of teachers' salaries and that there is no plan to compensate teachers who do not teach FCAT subjects. The issue even struck a chord with Nature Coast student government representatives who attended the workshop.

"It's great that teachers will get paid more," said 17-year-old Kristy Lang, Student Government Association vice president. "But this really puts way more pressure on the students who are already stressed out about the FCAT."

On another issue, the board voiced to Dockery its opposition to diminishing or eliminating home rule authority to impose impact fees on new construction. The board said that if the Legislature abolishes that authority, the Hernando district could lose $22.7-million over the next three years.

Dockery said she doesn't see that happening during the coming year.

The board's final request was for the state to expand the allowable uses of the district's 2-mill property tax levy to pay for technology equipment, software and vehicles other than buses.

Deborah Bruggink, the district's chief financial officer, said she is seeking more flexibility to use the money for necessary improvements.

Before Dockery left the workshop to swear in the student government at Chocachatti Elementary School, she and the board members thanked each other for the opportunity to speak about issues of mutual concern.

Mathew Wasserman can be contacted at