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Smaller classes come at a cost

To make class size limits work in Hillsborough County, school officials say they face options ranging from the expensive to the ugly.

They started talks Tuesday with the expensive.

School Board members learned that an additional 1,555 teachers could be needed - at a cost of $77-million annually, plus more classrooms - to place two fewer students in every classroom than the state Constitution requires.

The extra seats would leave room for growth during the year, school officials said, along with inevitable special cases and scheduling hiccups.

Not everyone agreed.

"I have grave concerns about the assumptions this is based on," School Board member Candy Olson said. "We haven't been given information about the cost."

Specifically, the board hasn't seen a financial analysis that includes both maximum and minimum expenses. In its initial plan, Hillsborough capped classrooms at 16 students in prekindergarten to third grade, 20 in fourth to eighth grades and 23 in high school. That's two fewer at each grade level than mandated.

The extra children make a difference.

In middle schools, Hillsborough would need 387 additional teachers if classrooms are designed for 20 students. That's 155 more than it would need if it raised the bar to 22 students, the legal ceiling.

Board members noted that situations can vary by school. Some parts of the county are seeing spiraling growth, while others are largely stable.

They pointed to another option for dealing with class size limits: closing schools when there's no more space. It's practical, though likely wouldn't be popular with parents who arrive after classes have started.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia stressed the constantly changing nature of student enrollment. She noted school officials are looking at the impact of the full range of class size options and will consider the scenario at each school before settling on the right mix.

District officials also hesitated to advertise the minimum cost now, with the Legislature gearing up for its spring session. This is when lawmakers decide how much money they will spend to lower class sizes.

"We're a little reluctant to present a document that says we can do it with less, because the session's coming soon," said Jim Hamilton, an administrator for special projects. "Just like my granddaughter says, 'My birthday's coming soon.' "

The evolving discussion is likely to slow down plans to change attendance boundaries at many schools

The changes sought to get Hillsborough ready for the fall of 2008, when the state will enforce class size limits in each classroom.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

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