NAPLES — Gov. Charlie Crist wants to do something about Florida’s class size amendment.
But his help might come too late for the nearly 1,800 Collier County students who are being rezoned as a result of the voter-approved mandate.
Crist released his proposed $22.7 billion education budget Monday afternoon, an increase of more than $535.5 million over the current fiscal year.
Among his recommendations, Crist expressed continued support for limiting class sizes in Florida classrooms, but recommended providing districts the flexibility in implementing class size requirements to avoid increasing operations and construction costs.
Crist announced plans for legislation modifying the constitutional amendment by calculating class-size compliance at the school level, a number that all Collier County schools currently meet without rezoning.
Annalise Smith, whose children are being rezoned from Osceola Elementary School to Golden Gate Elementary School as a result of the class size amendment, said Crist’s decision to support school average is “a step in the right direction.”
“As much as I disagree with the rezoning plan and the way it affects my family, I do understand that the amendment is the law and the only way to get a law changed is at the state level,” she said. “To know that the governor is recognizing the ramifications and making proposals is a huge step.”
Superintendent Dennis Thompson, who said Monday evening he had not seen the governor’s proposed budget, said the idea is nice, but the amendment is clear.
“The Legislature cannot unilaterally make changes to the constitutional amendment. It is a non-starter because they can’t do anything except, perhaps, to lift the sanctions if districts don’t comply with the amendment,” he said. “Any changes to the amendment would have to be made by the people.”
The class size amendment, which was approved by a majority of Florida voters in 2002, calls for core classes such as English, math and science to have a maximum of 18, 22 or 25 students by the start of the 2010 school year.
The Collier County School District has received funds from the state Legislature since 2003 to implement class size reduction in stages. The district used the money to help Collier comply with the school average class size requirement by 2007. That meant a high school could comply even if some of its freshmen English classes had more than 25 students as long as the average of all the English classes was 25 or fewer students.
In 2008, the state was expected to increase class size funding to help schools begin to get to class average. Funding problems at the state have forced the Legislature to direct districts to keep class size at the school average.
Lee County School District lobbyist Bob Cerra said the governor’s proposed increase in funding is a close match to the increase requested by the Florida Department of Education just to meet the demands of the class size amendment.
“I’m hopeful that we can do at least this well,” he said. “The reality is that the governor’s budget has been more than the high water mark in the last several years.”
Cerra cautions that it will be Friday, when Crist releases his full recommended budget, before districts have a concrete idea of where the proposed funding increase will come from. Outside an expected $430 million from an as yet-unsigned compact agreement with the Seminole Tribe, Cerra questioned if the additional money would come from fee increases or trust fund transfers.
To meet the requirements by August, Collier County will have to hire 216 teachers and provide 239 additional classrooms at an estimated cost of $14.6 million for teachers’ salaries and benefits. The district has enough classrooms so that if it rezones the students, it does not have to build additional schools or add portables.
In Lee County, district Superintendent James Browder anticipates needing to hire more teachers at a cost of $5 million to $8 million, but the district would be able to make do with existing classroom space and portable trailers. Lee County is insulated from the rezoning concerns gripping Collier County, in part, because of a school choice model that allows parents to choose schools that are not necessarily closest to home and get placed through a lottery system.
But Browder said Tuesday he is “hoping and praying” for the governor’s budget to come to fruition. As for the proposed changes to the implementation of the class size amendment, Browder expressed the same sentiment.
“I don’t think it was ever intended to bankrupt the state,” Browder said.
“They have got to come up with something,” he said. “We have been told to anticipate a $2.6 billion to $3.2 billion decrease in the budget (statewide). We’re not going to see an increase in funding.”
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-West Bradenton, has filed a bill to repeal the class size amendment, but Collier officials are not hopeful that bill will gain any traction. It should have competition, though. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, plans to file joint legislation with state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to stop the amendment at school averages rather than let it progress to classroom counts, as mandated for next year.
Sterling Ivey, spokesperson for Crist’s office, said the Governor supports Weatherford’s proposed bill, but 60 percent of Florida voters would also have to approve changes to the bill for those changes to move forward.
Still, if the Legislature takes up class size again, the decision to put class size back on the ballot could come to late for school districts. Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute has said the Legislature meets from March 1 to May 1, but the district has to start hiring teachers and scheduling students in March.
“Waiting for the Legislative session is impossible,” she told parents during a rezoning meeting.
It is also impossible because Florida voters would be approving changes about three months after the district would have to be in compliance with the amendment.
Staff writer Leslie Williams Hale contributed to this report.
Connect with Collier education reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers