Class size task force meets in Tampa

02/25/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday

This fall, school classrooms across the state must meet strict class-size limits mandated by a constitutional amendment that Florida voters passed in 2002. But several groups, including the state Legislature are looking at ways to usurp the constitutional mandate and make the class size rules more flexible.

A Class Caps Community Task Force meeting was conducted by Hillsborough County Schools this morning in Tampa.

The class-size reduction amendment sets a limit of no more than 18 students in each kindergarten through third-grade class, 22 in fourth- through eighth-grades and 25 in high school.

Ken Otero, deputy superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools, said the task force hopes to get answers to the questions about how to make these goals a reality.

“You’ve heard people discuss today the questions on what do you do when that 19th kid walks into the kindergarten class. Do you tell that student there’s no room? Do you create a different situation in the school? You know those are some of the issues. One of the main concerns we have is the space issue. Granted there are some places we can put a portable and that might be a solution. But there are some schools that are landlocked, there’s no place to put portables, they have small classrooms, team teaching is problematic. Those are some of the concerns that are out there.”

The Class Size Amendment required school districts to meet district-wide average numbers of students per class by 2003 and school-wide averages since 2006. Beginning this fall, each class must meet class caps, and full compliance is required by the fall of 2010.

The Community Task Force includes teachers, principals, Realtors, developers, parents, and various departments in the school district, according to Otero.

Heather Shippard is a Realtor with Smith and Associates and volunteered to serve as a co-chair of the Class Caps Community Task Force.

“Because I am sensitive to the community’s feelings about schools and their selections are directly related to my sales of properties, of real estate. So I thought this would be a good way to serve the community and help out. I mean this is a dynamic group and I see they have lots to get done and I’m trying to assist. Our business is directly related to the schools too.”

Shippard feels that the requirement should be watered down from the firm class size limits that Florida’s voters added to the state’s constitution.

“I think that we really need flexibility. I mean, I don’t know whether it’s 3 to 5 or whatever it is, but I just don’t see how you can have hard, fast rule about that. Because, you know, the school is a living thing and change is made all year long and people are transferred and people are moved in. No, I don’t think a hard cap makes any sense.”

During the 2008 session beginning March 4, the Florida Legislature will try to pass legislation to override the class size amendment in the by making the class size caps more flexible. But a different approach, that avoids potential constitutional challenges, passed a hurdle on Monday. A committee of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission approved a proposal that reverts back to the requirement that class size limits meet a district average.

The Tallahassee Democrat reports that the state’s teachers union opposed the proposal, which passed 5-3. Before it reaches the ballot, it must survive one more committee and then receive supermajority support from commissioners.

Jeff Eakins, Hillsborough County School District’s Director of Federal Programs, said that the District wants the issue of flexibility addressed.

“You know, we’re hoping they’re going to definitely look at it in the Legislature. To maybe bring an approach to the amendment that is going to be able to be palatable for everybody involved knowing that it’s very difficult on children to have to adjust classes all year long in order to meet a particular amendment. So we want to make sure that we listen to the Legislature, we voice the concerns of course to the Legislature as far as how that’s going to impact the school sites. But on the other hand we want to make sure that we are prepared if they don’t provide any soft caps or so forth that we know how to move forward and implement a strategy within our district that’s going to address those issues.”

Bill Person is general director for the Student Planning Placement and Support Programs for the Hillsborough County School District. Hillsborough schools have experienced growth every year since 1983, Person said, but there has been no growth in enrollment over the last two years. He said the school district has already made boundary adjustments in anticipation of the class size limits coming up in the fall.

“This district has accommodated growth and accommodated new parents moving into communities and basically overloaded the schools and brought more portables on campus. Many of those options we used of running schools at 120 and 130 percent capacity over the last 25 years are no longer viable under class size reduction. So how are we going to communicate this information to parents when their child cannot attend the neighborhood school? What are the logistics involved in reassignment and how do we provide transportation? When we do get space available eventually at the assigned school, how are we going to get the children back? How are we going to communicate with the parents?"

A St. Petersburg Times survey released Sunday shows little public support for changing the class size amendment. Only 30 percent of respondents favor allowing “schools to meet class-size limits as an average, instead of in every classroom,” and fewer than half want schools to be able to exceed classroom limits even in case of emergency.

Person said that the school district was not assuming that the Legislature or a new constitutional amendment would relax requirements for schools to reduce class sizes.

“The Legislature has done a wonderful job since 2002 of funding for class size reduction. And we’ve used that money very wisely on building classroom wings and building schools and actually hiring teachers so we’ve been ramping up since 2002 in preparation for this so we’re still in good shape and we expect to be in good shape. But I do want to say to you there is talk that there may be some relaxation at the state level with the department of education or with the Legislature and maybe this won’t be so stringent, but there may not. So the district, obviously, is preparing for the worst case scenario.”

The next Hillsborough Schools Class Caps Community Task Force meeting will be at 1 p.m. March 7.

Learn more:

Class Size Reduction Amendment information from Florida’s Department of Education

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission

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