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Florida ballot proposal targets class size limits

TALLAHASSEE — A newly filed ballot proposal to weaken Florida’s class size limits drew immediate opposition Tuesday from the statewide teachers union and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who led a 2002 campaign that put the requirements in the state constitution.

Sen. Don Gaetz and Rep. Will Weatherford said the new constitutional amendment (SJR 2) they are sponsoring is needed to avoid chaos and save millions that could go, instead, for such purposes as teacher pay raises.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said they are trying to “right size class size” without repealing a constitutional amendment designed to reduce the number of students in K-12 classrooms.

It has been a highly politicized issue. Most Republicans have been trying to repeal or loosen the amendment almost since the day voters adopted it, arguing it’s too expensive. The state already has spent about $16 billion to phase in the class size reductions and Gov. Charlie Crist says the proposed changes would save $350 million a year. Most Democrats have supported and defended the limits.

Meek, the leading Democratic candidate in this year’s U.S. Senate race, will likely face the winner of a Republican primary between Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio. The Republicans both support the idea of pulling back from class size limits although that’s a switch for Crist.

Meek said the Weatherford-Gaetz amendment will shortchange Florida’s families.

“They simply ask that their children not be packed into overcrowded classrooms,” he said in a statement. “We’ve seen consistent improvement in test scores over the implementation of the class size reduction program.”

Reaction in Manatee County was mixed to the efforts to relax the class-size rules.

Antonino Fabiano, a Palmetto High School teacher, said, “I am a supporter of the class-size amendment and believe smaller classes enhance the learning experience. The economy, however, has changed dramatically since the law was first passed. Allowing administrators flexibility seems like a good compromise and smart way to spend our tax dollars.”

Wendy Acosta, G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary principal, said she thought the proposed legislation offers flexibility to schools. “This will allow us to make staffing changes in a more strategic manner rather than reacting to one or two students moving in or out of our schools at any given time. I think it is a good move,” Acosta said.

Melodie Posada, a Manatee County School District parent, said she likes the additional attention her child gets from a teacher in a smaller class situation.

“My concern is if they add more children to classes that my child will get less attention and the teacher will have more work to do. The time they could have been spending on my child will be shifted. It’s going to be more of a burden on teachers. These teachers must have time to interact with a student and know their needs and personality. If they’re just doing book work, it’s all lacking,” Posada said.

Kristopher Bayer, Kinnan Elementary principal, said smaller class size gives the staff the capability to better serve all students. “As a principal for 20 years I favor the proposed amendment to keep class size where it is today,” Bayer said.

Bob Gause, Manatee County School Board member, said he supports the efforts of Weatherford and Gaetz.

“Of all the reasons for changing the class-size amendment, the most compelling is the ability to customize class sizes to improve student learning gains. Instead of a one size fits all approach, this proposal will allow flexibility for the principal to adjust class sizes to better fit student learning needs and individual teacher teaching styles. Budget limitations effectively prohibit this flexibility next year under the current laws,” Gause said.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said the union believes “voters were pretty clear in 2002 that they wanted this.” He agreed schools need more class size flexibility but said lawmakers can do that without changing the constitution.

The proposal would need 60 percent voter approval in November but first must pass each house of the Legislature, also by 60 percent. Previous attempts have succeeded in the House but failed in the Senate. Gaetz, though, said he is confident of getting the required 24 Senate votes.

The last Senate vote was 20-20 in 2006 — four votes short. All 14 Democrats and six Republicans voted no. This time, though, Democratic Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando and Jeremy Ring of Margate are among 16 Senate co-sponsors.

“This is Groundhog Day,” Gaetz noted at a news conference surrounded by school officials and other supporters.

“Like the movie of the same name, the class size issue keeps coming back every year,” said Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County school superintendent. “But what’s different this year is that we’ve run out of years.”

The limits go into full effect for the first time in August after an extended phase-in period. That’s more than two month before the proposed revision would be on the ballot.

Gaetz acknowledged schools are facing “two or three months of chaos and confusion and angry meetings in the cafeteria.”

Jim Drake, Manatee County School District Assistant Superintendent of Finance, said the proposal addresses some of the logistical issues that complicate the implementation of the class size amendment and relieves some of the fiscal pressure on the district.

The more immediate question is how the Legislature is going to fund class size for the coming year, Drake said. “It is difficult to determine the fiscal impact of this proposal until the Legislature provides some direction on the amount of class size reduction funding is it willing to provide. As always, the devil is in the details.”

During the current academic year, each school must average no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades four through eight and 25 in high school. Nearly all schools have met that requirement.

Starting with this fall, though, every individual classroom must comply. Principals, superintendents and school board members say that could mean busing and portable classrooms, double sessions, redistricting, elimination of electives and teachers teaching outside their fields.

The proposed amendment would keep the current schoolwide averages, but prohibit individual classrooms from exceeding the caps by more than three students from kindergarten through third grade and five in the higher grades.

Supporters again raise the specter of having to hire a new teacher, add a new classroom or bus children to other schools if just one new student arrives after the school year begins.

School administrators, although they support the proposed amendment, have joined the teachers union in pushing for an interim or backup solution — passing a law that would require compliance only at the start of each school year. If more students enroll after that, schools would have until the next year to find a solution.

“I can’t imagine a judge, if that were challenged, not allowing us to use that commonsense approach,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

Gaetz disagreed.

“Are you willing to do that for other provisions of the constitution, that we only have to abide by them one day a year?” Gaetz said. “That would be a pretty dangerous precedent.”

— Natalie Alund, education reporter, contributed to this story.