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In a major shift, Hillsborough schools ease class size rules to address budget worries

The Hillsborough school system, long a bastion of strict compliance with Florida class size rules, plans to abandon that philosophy this fall as leaders seek to save money.

Instead of counting classroom by classroom, the district has advised principals to use school averages to comply with the law.

"All we're doing is taking advantage of the flexibility that class size presents us," superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

He was referring to a provision lawmakers created two years ago, in which campuses can calculate class size as a schoolwide average once designated as "public schools of choice." Hillsborough is a district of choice, Eakins said on Monday.

The use of averages is something voters twice rejected, as well as a move former superintendent MaryEllen Elia refused to consider.

"I am going to follow the laws of the state of Florida," Elia said in 2010 and several times afterward, "and the law of the state of Florida is that we comply."

But as the district seeks to curb the practice of spending its reserves on recurring expenses, Eakins and his finance team are looking everywhere for ways to become more efficient. The superintendent said he expected to find at least $10 million in trims within the district-level budget, including the elimination of some travel and a reduction in overtime.

Over the long haul, he said, his team expects to evaluate all programs to determine what works and what can be disbanded or curtailed.

With students returning next week, class size gets early attention.

Eakins said his plan would end the need to send an added teacher to a school whenever a student arrives who would push a class past the state-mandated caps — 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth, or 25 in high school.

That change in approach would save money while also benefiting students and classes, Eakins said. No longer would schools have to shift teachers and kids around weeks after their courses have started.

"We've been very stringent," he said. "It starts to disrupt classrooms."

He stressed that classes would not expand to huge numbers.

Such a move could run afoul of parents, though.

"I think we should stay within the class sizes," Claire Huggins, who has two children at Walker Middle and one at Steinbrenner High, said on Tuesday. "We all voted for that for a reason."

Huggins worried that, even with just a few more students, a teacher would have less time to provide individualized instruction.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hills­borough Classroom Teachers Association, said Tuesday that she didn't know what to expect from a shift to averages, since the district had not done it after the law changed.

"As a general rule, I am a proponent of a smaller class size and of following what the people wanted," she said.

The dependence on a loophole in state law, meanwhile, could prove problematic.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, said Tuesday that districts across Florida appeared to be misusing the "schools of choice" provision, which is broadly defined in state law.

"When we drafted it, it was designed for a specific school that has a specific program, not as a districtwide generic (model)," Legg said. "I do think we are one lawsuit away from that exception being taken away."

Legg, who does not support the 2002 amendment to the state Constitution that limited class size, does not expect lawmakers to delete the language from law. He did suggest that a clear definition of "schools of choice" could emerge in the next regular session, though.

"They've stretched the intent of the legislation," he said of the districts that have taken this step. "That is a complete end run on the Constitution."

Eakins said he did not know how much money the district might save in class size changes. He expects to have more details after the official student count takes place in October.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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