Collier school officials call on parents to spread word about need for class size amendment

What should happen with the class-size amendment?

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— Naples businesswoman Nancy Thalheimer is frustrated.

Though she appreciated that Collier County Superintendent Dennis Thompson came to speak to the Parent Teacher Organization at Pine Ridge Middle School about the class size amendment, she was disappointed that more people do not seem to be aware of the issues Collier schools are facing in trying to comply with the amendment.

“I am asking you, the school board, what I should do,” she said. “I am frustrated and I don’t know what to do to get the word out. ... I want to help because I know how important this is.”

Thalheimer, who has two children in Collier County schools, was one of two people who spoke at the Collier County School Board’s public hearing on the district’s plan to comply with Florida’s class-size amendment.

Florida voters passed the class-size amendment in 2002. As it reads now, core classes such as English and math must be limited to 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth through eighth grades and 25 students in high school by the start of the 2010-11 school year.

But realizing the mandate would create a financial burden for cash-strapped school districts, state lawmakers voted to put the amendment on the ballot in November.

Under Amendment 8, the class-size limits would apply to school-wide averages, not individual classroom sizes. That means, for example, that the class average in English classes at Naples High School would have to be 25, but some classes could have more than 25 students.

Some could have 27, as long as others had 23 and the average of all of the classes worked out to be 25 students per class.

Amendment 8 requires that no prekindergarten through third grade class could have more than 21 students; no fourth through eighth grade class could have more than 27 students and no high school class could have more than 30 students, according to Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute.

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

The amendment is being challenged by the Florida Education Association, which is the state teachers’ union, according to LaBute. The union is looking to get the amendment thrown off the ballot because of “confusing language.”

A judge is expected to rule on that challenge this week, LaBute said.

Board member Pat Carroll said to help get the word out, the district needs a parent group to take the lead, since the Collier County School Board cannot lobby people to vote for the amendment one way or another. She urged Thalheimer to consider following the lead of Becky Newell, the Collier County parent who took the lead on the School Board’s referendum in 2008.

Carroll said she plans to attend School Advisory Committee meetings at schools in District 1, which comprises East Naples and Marco Island, to get the word out about the amendment.

“I am hoping it has a trickle down effect,” she said.

Thalheimer said it was a good idea, but pointed out that at Pine Ridge Middle School, there were 75 members of the PTO in a school of 900 students.

Some, but not all Collier County classrooms will meet the requirements, and the district has elected to pay the state’s penalty for non-compliance. To try to reduce class size, the district has increased 2009-10 instructional staffing by assigning resource teachers to elementary schools and hiring 33 teachers for elementary, middle and high schools.

Still, Collier will not meet the requirements and is facing the possibility of receiving a financial penalty in October, when the state is legally required to hold schools accountable.

The penalty for the Collier County School District has been estimated as being between $2,500 and $3,500 per student, although LaBute said Thursday she didn’t know what the penalty would be.

If Amendment 8 passes, the Collier County School District anticipates it will be compliant, although district officials said it will be necessary to adhere to the requirements of Amendment 8 as new students enroll, which could mean closing classes, hiring new teachers and splitting classes, among other things.

If Amendment 8 doesn’t pass, the district plans to rezone the elementary schools, which will affect about 1,000 children in about 10 elementary schools, to allow for space in all of the schools for the additional teachers required to be added for full compliance. Rezoning would be implemented in the 2011-12 school year.

The district anticipates it will need to recruit the estimated 200 teachers needed for full compliance, in addition to 200-plus teachers needed annually for attrition. In addition, the district would revise the bus routes for the new elementary school bus zones and use $12 million to $15 million from the district’s reserves to hire the teachers needed to comply with class-size reduction.

The district has placed information about the class size amendment and amendment 8 on its web site, www.collierschools.com.

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