COLLIER COUNTY — Parents of Collier County elementary school students that were scheduled to be rezoned next year can breathe a sigh of relief.
A shallow breath.
Superintendent Dennis Thompson said Tuesday he is 99.99 percent sure he will ask the Collier County School Board to halt a decision on elementary school rezoning until April. The district planned to rezone 1,039 students from 10 elementary schools in order to comply with the class size amendment, which voters passed in 2002 and which must be implemented by the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.
Thompson came to the decision, he said, after receiving information from School Board lobbyist Vern Crawford and Florida Association of School Administrators Executive Director Jim Warford that a proposed bill to change the class size amendment was gaining traction in Tallahassee.
“They feel strongly that there is a move to get something out of the Legislature onto the ballot,” he said. “I think we can give it two months to see if they can make it come to fruition.”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, a former school superintendent, has drafted a bill with Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, that would “clarify” the amendment. Their proposal would give schools flexibility above the caps that call for no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth through eighth grades and 25 students in high school.
That way, if a 19th kindergarten student moved into a school, the school would not have to hire a new teacher and split a class in two.
After spending $16 billion to implement the first phases of the amendment, the state is up against a projected $2.5 billion budget hole and can scarcely afford to fund the rest of the amendment, Gaetz told the Daily News last month.
“We are now against the blades,” Gaetz said. “And, all I can say is better late than never.”
But, if the Legislature is going to get the bill onto the ballot in November, it would have to pass both the House and Senate. A similar bill passed the House last year, but died on the Senate floor.
Florida voters would have to approve the changes by at least a 60 percent vote. Voters passed the amendment in 2002 by a 52-48 vote, before ballot measures had to pass by a 60-40 margin.
Thompson said the reprieve, if the initiative makes it to the ballot, might only be for one year if voters do not pass the Legislature’s changes.
“We could be back right where we are next year,” he said. “This will not give us permanent breathing room. Parents can take a shallow breath, not a deep breath.”
The district is still moving forward with plans to rezone high school students, he said.
“That was inevitable without the class size amendment,” he said. “Gulf Coast High School has grown 3 percent this year. If we did nothing, we would still have to add three more portables. It would be irresponsible of us not to rezone students who live closer to Golden Gate when we have 24 empty classrooms.”
Thompson said the district can afford to delay the elementary school rezoning until April because the elementary schools do not have to have scheduling done for months. High schools, he said, need to get started earlier because of the number of classes students can take.
School Board member Steve Donovan confirmed Tuesday that Thompson had discussed the matter with him during their weekly meeting. He said he agrees with the superintendent’s assessment that the reprieve could mean nothing, at which point the district would move forward with rezoning.
As for the high school rezoning, Donovan said he believes it needs to be done to redistribute students more evenly.
“We made mistakes with previous rezonings of the high schools,” he said.
The Collier County School Board will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail.