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THE PRICE OF SMALL CLASSES

Maybe you recall Amendment 9 on the 2002 general election ballot. It was the one right above Amendment 10, a measure that today affords constitutional protection to Florida's pregnant pigs.

Amendment 9, the "class size amendment," asked Florida voters to limit class sizes to 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, 25 in high school. It passed with 52 percent of the vote.

To comply, school districts had to hire more teachers and build more classrooms. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush said the cost would "block out the sun" when it came to Florida's budget. Six years later, Pinellas officials would argue that Bush was right.

The School Board last week approved construction management contracts for $116-million worth of projects needed to comply with the amendment.

The estimated grand total stands at $144-million, including 331 permanent new classrooms and 80 "permanent relocatables." The latter term refers to regular portable classrooms that will be retrofitted with underground utilities, stronger foundations and covered walkways to comply with state law.

The expense comes at a time when Pinellas and other districts are closing schools to deal with declining enrollment and cutting millions from the budget. But state law mandates that the district comply with the class size amendment no matter what.

In addition to building new classrooms, the district has been required to increase its teaching staff by 816 since 2003, adding $150-million a year to the payroll.

"To me, it's like the $3,000 coffee pot at the Pentagon," said School Board member Jane Gallucci, a vocal opponent of the amendment who has urged Pinellas and other large counties to band together to defy the mandate, daring the state to assess a fine.

She contends that Florida voters never would have approved the amendment had they known the true cost. She also says the money would be better spent on strategies that may make a bigger difference to students.

While the amendment passed statewide, 55 percent of Pinellas voters said no to it.

"We're building brick and mortar for the next year that five years from now we might not even fill," Gallucci said, noting that enrollment is declining in Pinellas and other districts.

The money spent on lowering class sizes would otherwise be spent on renovation and construction projects that have long been on the district's to-do list. Among them: a new Largo High School.

Soon, the district will take a fresh look at the list with an eye toward resuming those projects when the class size mandate is fulfilled.

"This will be out of the way and then we can hit all of the other projects," said Fred Matz, a district budget official. "Everything will be reprioritized."

Gallucci sees one silver lining to the class size work.

In a tough economy, "it's giving business to the construction industry right now."

$144-million estimated grand total in Pinellas

331 new classrooms

80 retrofitted portables

School Project Estimated cost to date

Azalea Elementary 8-classroom building $2,816,000

Bardmoor Elementary 6-classroom building $2,513,000

Bay Point Middle 6-classroom building $2,000,000

Bay Vista Fundamental 8-classroom building $2,735,000

Belcher Elementary 16-classroom building, 3 portables $6,020,000

Belleair Elementary 16-classroom building, 8 portables $6,145,000

Blanton Elementary 8-classroom building, 10 portables $3,130,000

Curlew Creek Elementary 8-classroom building, 4 portables $3,070,000

Dunedin High 12 portables $1,030,000

isenhower Elementary 8-classroom building, 1 portable $2,935,000

Fairmount Park Elementary 2-classroom building $940,000

Fuguitt Elementary 8-classroom building, 4 portables $3,125,000

Gulfport Elementary 8-classroom building $3,090,000

James B. Sanderlin Elementary 4-classroom building $1,585,000

John Hopkins Middle 12-classroom building, 2 portables $4,225,000

Leila Davis Elementary 10-classroom building, 3 portables $3,880,000

Lynch Elementary 12-classroom building $4,133,000

McMullen-Booth Elementary 6-classroom building $2,710,000

Mildred Helms Elementary 14-classroom building, 3 portables $5,410,000

Oakhurst Elementary 10-classroom building, 1 portable $3,795,000

Oldsmar Elementary 8-classroom building, 1 portable $2,893,000

Palm Harbor Elementary 14-classroom building, 6 portables $5,680,000

Palm Harbor Middle 12-classroom building, 1 portable $4,197,000

Palm Harbor University High 33 new classrooms $13,200,000

Pinellas Central Elementary 6-classroom building, 3 portables $2,660,000

Plumb Elementary 5 portables $225,000

Ponce de Leon Elementary 10-classroom building, 3 portables $3,838,000

Ridgecrest Elementary 4-classroom building, 3 portables $1,873,000

Safety Harbor Elementary 16-classroom building $5,904,000

Safety Harbor Middle 8-classroom building, 2 portables $2,778,000

Seminole High 10 portables $392,000

Seminole Middle 8-classroom building, 2 portables $2,808,000

Seventy-fourth Street Elementary 4-classroom building, 3 portables $1,703,000

Skycrest Elementary 16-classroom building, 6 portables $6,105,000

Skyview Elementary 10-classroom building, 3 portables $3,788,000

Southern Oak Elementary 6-classroom building $2,523,000

Starkey Elementary 8-classroom building $2,846,000

Source: Pinellas County School District

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