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THE PRICE OF SMALLER CLASSES

Even though enrollment is falling and the budget is shrinking, the school district is forced to sink millions into new classrooms.

Maybe you recall Amendment 9 on the 2002 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 recently 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 coffeepot 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.

On the other hand, Belleair Elementary will get 24 new classrooms in a construction project to begin late next year. The school is currently using 14 portables but a new two-story building will add 16 permanent classrooms. The others will be the upgraded portables.

Principal Robert C. Ovalle is appreciative of both the intent and result of the amendment.

"Anytime something is done to lower the teacher-pupil ratio, it is good,'' he said. "Space is an issue for us. ... We'll have room to grow.''

Soon, the district will take a fresh look at the list with an eye toward resuming some previously planned 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."

Times staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report.

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

Eisenhower 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

Class size amendment's expected impact

$144M estimated grand total in Pinellas

331 new classrooms

80 retrofitted portables

816 new teachers

Up next:RAIN CHECK

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