Subcommittee delays recommendation on whether to rezone Collier’s schools

— Parents waiting to see if their children will have to go to a different Collier County school next year will have to wait a bit longer.

The Collier County School Board’s operations subcommittee voted 6 to 1 to delay a vote on potential rezoning until at least Dec. 8.

Member James Riviere was the lone dissenter.

“I was prepared to vote this evening. I respect others need for more time, but I was ready,” he said.

The subcommittee has been charged with making the recommendation to rezone or bring in portables to help the district comply with the class size amendment.

Riviere said after the meeting if he had voted Tuesday, he would have voted to bring in portables.

“In the last two, three, four years, people’s lives have been turned upside down,” he said. “They are hurting. To massively rezone, we will disrupt sports, ... bus schedules, their personal lives.”

Concerned about class sizes that were reaching 40 students or more, voters passed the constitutional amendment in 2002. It calls for the number of students per classroom to be limited in core classes such as English, science and math.

To meet the need, the district would have to hire 216 teachers at an estimated salary cost of $14.6 million. The district also may need 239 classrooms. There are enough classrooms available districtwide for the number of teachers needed but there are individual schools that don’t have enough classrooms while other schools have extra classrooms, said Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute.

A decision must be made, she said.

Under the first option, the district can add portables to campuses with a shortage of classrooms and leave classrooms empty in other schools. LaBute told board members the district would need about 58 portables at a cost of $3 million plus electrical costs. The district also would have to use 77 empty classrooms.

The second option is for the district to rezone students to other schools in order to minimize the need for portable classrooms and maximize the use of permanent classrooms. A third option would be for the district to do a combination of zoning and portable classrooms.

Some of the schools that don’t have enough capacity for new teachers include Tommie Barfield, Veterans Memorial, Laurel Oak, Village Oaks, Lake Trafford and Osceola elementary schools and Gulf Coast High School.

LaBute also told the committee members that rezoning one school could create a domino effect at other schools. For example, rezoning students from Veterans Memorial could send students to Laurel Oak, which is also overcrowded. That could send more students from Laurel Oak to Corkscrew Elementary School, which could then send students to Sabal Palm Elementary School.

Also at issue was school choice and out-of-zone students. There are several schools that are overcrowded now that have students who elect to go to school there rather than their home school. The reasons can vary from simple choice to the need to accommodate a day care situation or because a parent teaches at the school. LaBute asked the committee what to consider to do with those students as well.

Committee member James Flesher said he would like more information on what would happen to the schools’ populations if the district just removed the choice and out-of-zone students.

LaBute told board members she would like to have a recommendation from the operations subcommittee before the Dec. 10 board meeting. The board will then take the subcommittee’s recommendation and decide whether to rezone, bring in portables or a combination.

If the board chooses to rezone, the district will have a plan for community meetings on the rezonings in January. If the board chooses portables, the district will begin moving and installing the portables in January.

Under the current timeline for the class-size amendment’s implementation, schools must limit the number of students in classrooms by the 2010-11 school year.

Schools not meeting the requirement face fines. District officials told committee members the fines could be $2.7 million if Collier does not comply.

The state could still amend the class-size legislation, LaBute said, but the district needs to be prepared in case the measure doesn’t get on the 2010 ballot or doesn’t receive 60 percent of the vote required to change it.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, filed a bill that would let voters decide if they want to repeal the 2002 amendment that added class-size rules to the state constitution.

Committee member James Warnken suggested that the district take the fine in 2010-11 to see what the state would decide to do about the amendment’s implementation. He said $2.7 million would be a small price to pay rather than the district investing up to $17 million in new teachers and portables if the class size amendment is repealed.

But LaBute did not like that idea. She said there was a difference between attempting to comply and knowingly ignoring a constitutional amendment. She also worried that not complying with the amendment could open the board to a lawsuit.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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