POLL: Collier School Board candidates size up class-size amendment differently

Rosanne Winter

Rosanne Winter

Pat Carroll

Pat Carroll

Eric Cox, Collier County School board candidate

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER

Eric Cox, Collier County School board candidate

— Small classes might be better for students, but at what cost?

That seems to be the consensus among candidates for Collier County School Board in Districts 1, 3 and 5. Those who are running said while the amendment requiring schools to make class sizes smaller was created to do some good, it ends up punishing those it was trying to help.

The class-size amendment, passed by Florida voters in 2002, limits the number of students in core classes such as English and math to 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth- through eighth-grades and 25 students in high school by the start of the 2010-11 school year. If districts fail to meet those requirements, they could face penalties.

Collier County school leaders have announced they won’t meet those requirements and the Collier School Board has joined a lawsuit that challenges the penalties, which could reach $351 million statewide if districts fail to meet the class-size limits this fall.

Under Amendment 8, the class-size limits will apply to school-wide averages, not individual classrooms. That means, for example, that the class average in English at Naples High would have to be 25, but not every class would have to have 25 students. Some could have 27, as long as others had 23.

Sixty percent of voters have to agree to the amendment this fall to make it law.

Still, those districts not in compliance with the individual class sizes could be slapped with penalties in October, when the state is legally required to hold schools accountable.

District 1 School Board member Pat Carroll said she supports Amendment 8. The district currently meets school averages at all of its schools.

“We need that flexibility because without it, students will be hurt,” she said.

Carroll also supported the School Board joining the lawsuit against the state because she thought it “inappropriate” for the state to collect penalties from one school district and give the money to another.

As for the current board’s handling of the issue, Carroll said the School Board is doing the best it can.

“We, as constitutional officers, are legally bound to uphold the law,’’ she said. “When the Legislature put the issue on the ballot, it put (the class-size amendment) in play. We will start working immediately toward a resolution one way or another after the vote in November.”

District 1 School Board candidate Rosanne Winter said the amendment was simplistic in its thinking and schooling isn’t simplistic. She said a school’s master schedule, which is put together in the summer, is a snapshot in time. It changes as children move into and out of the district, she said.

This is one of a series of stories about candidates and issues in Tuesday’s primary.

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“All of this happened because the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools took out class size to accommodate the Dade counties of the world that couldn’t handle it,” she said, referring to Dade County’s overcrowded classrooms that spawned the need for the legislation.

Winter, a retired educator, said what added to the problem is that the legislation isn’t written well and the state isn’t funding the amendment properly.

“To push it on the local communities, especially one like Naples which has one of the highest tax bases in the state, it’s just too much to ask,” she said.

Winter said the bottom line is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools should step up and make class size a priority again; there should be school averages, rather than classroom averages; and there should be teacher averages. With teacher averages, Winter said if a teacher is supposed to have six classes of 25 students, some classes could have 27 while others had 23.

“These were all things that were in place at one time and we have eroded them out because of certain districts -- not Collier,” she said.

District 1 candidate and retired businessman Eric Cox said he favors Amendment 8.

“It reads well and I believe it will be more workable as it will allow some flexibility that did not exist. Also Amendment 8 will soften the burden on taxpayers,” he wrote in an e-mail.

In the District 3 School Board race, retired educator Kathleen Ryan said she voted for the original class-size amendment, supporting it from a statewide perspective, but acknowledging it’s not needed for Collier County.

Her opponents, business-minded Reg Buxton and former School Board member Barbara Berry are both adamantly opposed to the original amendment and say Amendment 8 will at least help.

“On first blush, it sounds like a good idea ... But somebody didn’t think this through,” Berry said of the original amendment. “Frankly, I think it’s a huge mess.”

The effects on operational expenses, including hiring more teachers, and capital expenses, building more classrooms, makes it an absurdity to comply if changes are coming in the future, Buxton and Berry agreed.

Buxton preferred to see the limits increased by three or four students per class.

Barbara Berry

Barbara Berry

Reg Buxton, candidate for Collier County School Board 2010

Reg Buxton, candidate for Collier County School Board 2010

Kathy Ryan

Kathy Ryan

Ryan saw the amendment somewhat differently.

Collier County hasn’t historically lacked the resources to keep class sizes reasonable, she said. However, Miami-Dade and Broward counties suffered after Hurricane Andrew and struggled to rebuild the destroyed classrooms and buildings they needed, she said. That led to classes of as many as 40 students.

Ryan said she’s glad she doesn’t have to vote on Amendment 8 until November.

“Do I selfishly vote for Collier? That’s where I’m presently hung up,” she said.

Ambiguity in the language of Amendment 8 needs to be ironed out before she casts her vote, Ryan said.

Buxton supports Amendment 8 for the benefit of Collier and other districts, saying that averaging student class sizes would allow for better planning and provide more financial control.

“It is imperative something be done; approving Amendment 8 would help all concerned,” he said.

Berry said it provides an improvement, but it would be best to leave it up to individual districts.

Buxton was the most outspoken about his approval of the board knowingly violating the amendment.

“Don’t spend $15 million on new teachers and $3 million on portables,“ he said. “Instead of spending $18 million in total, take the loss of $2.7 million in hold-back funds,“ Buxton said.

Of course, it likely won’t be $2.7 million because that figure would assume that all classes in all schools weren’t in compliance, he said, citing school administrator Michelle LaBute’s estimates.

Ryan and Berry, however, don’t support the idea of knowingly breaking the law.

Roy Terry

Roy Terry

Joe Whitehead

Joe Whitehead

Mary Ellen Cash

Mary Ellen Cash

“The board could go to jail,” Ryan said. “They take an oath to support the Constitution of the State of Florida.”

However, Ryan laughed a bit, adding: “If the superintendent, in an attempt to make things work, winds up with a few violations ... I think it’s up to the superintendent.”

If it’s as many as 40 classrooms in violation, you pay the fine and move on, she said.

Ryan supports the decision to join the lawsuit because it’s a $1,500 legal fee decision. She said the cost of it needs to be watched though.

Berry didn’t take a strong stance on joining the lawsuit.

“Lawsuits have gone on before. It’s a financial issue,” Berry said.

Buxton said he wanted to hear from the community before he took a stance on joining the lawsuit.

District 5 School Board member and candidate Roy Terry said smaller class sizes are a good thing.

“The question is whether financially we can afford them at this point with the economy the way it is,” he said. “If you go one student over, you have to create two classes, find a place to put them and hire another teacher.”

Terry said the district will be in trouble if voters don’t support Amendment 8.

“If that doesn’t pass, we will have to make some radical adjustments,” he said. “It is going to be a tough battle. If we can get the message out that this is a situation that will cost us some problems, hopefully people will come out and support the amendment.”

Elections 2010 Page:

District 5 candidate Joe Whitehead said he voted against the amendment in 2002 and eight years hasn’t softened his stance.

“I voted against it as a citizen because it was unfunded. When you don’t provide a funding mechanism, you create a problem. That was mistake No. 1,” he said.

Whitehead, a retired Naples police detective, said while he believes that the class-size amendment can help teachers in terms of classroom management issues, the bulk of what he has read found that students didn’t derive any profound benefit from smaller classes.

Whitehead said while he agrees that the district should join the lawsuit against the state, he said he believes the best thing would be to allow schools to manage their own populations.

“There is a legitimate discomfort for these families (affected by rezoning because of class size),” he said. “We’re placing hardships on people to serve the needs of a governmental mandate. That’s government working backward.”

District 5 candidate Mary Ellen Cash, an instructional specialist with the Collier County School District, said the district has had eight years to comply with the law and has failed to do so.

“It is a failure in planning that will cost the taxpayers millions,” she said, referring to the seven-figure fine the district is likely to incur for not meeting the class-size requirements. “It’s irresponsible. There is no excuse for not complying. Managing by crisis is not OK. We have to be proactive in our planning.”

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Joe Whitehead

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Roy Terry

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Mary Ellen Cash

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Patricia Carroll

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Eric Cox

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Rosanne Winter

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Barbara Berry

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Reg Buxton

CLICK HERE FOR Election 2010: VIDEO and bio on Collier School Board candidate Kathleen Ryan

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