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Lee schools ready to begin campaign to change class size requirements

By Staff | May 4, 2010

The Lee County School District’s Budget Committee is in planning stages for a communications campaign informing voters on what those officials say are the dangers of the Class Size Amendment.
The amendment to the Florida Constitution was approved by voters in 2002, and caps the maximum number of students in classes – 18 in elementary, 22 in middle and 25 in high.
Legislators passed a bill this session to help ease those requirements, but the proposal has to go before voters in November and be approved by more than 60 percent.
The district wants people to know what they’re voting for.
“A lot of things hinge on that November vote,” said Budget Director Ami Desamours. “We’re making sure to get information to employees, parents and the community to know what the vote means.”
Each year Lee County receives funding to assist in class size implementation and, according to Desamours, the amount increased last year.
Superintendent James Browder said it will still be difficult to meet the requirements unless Lee County receives an additional $8 to $10 million, and the amendment states that all school districts have to be in compliance by this fall or face fines.
Besides the additional class size funding needed for full implementation, Browder said Tuesday that the district’s Required Local Effort, or taxes raised here in Lee County and paid to the state, was increased from 95 to 96 percent, meaning the school district will lose $4 million.
Browder said these two shortfalls make balancing the budget difficult, even more so if more students enroll.
“It might be short if we have more students show up, we are in one of those real awkward positions right now,” said Browder. “We are going to meet later this week, talk about what we are going to do, how we are going to approach it and see exactly what that means.”
Penalties for not meeting class size have been growing more severe since 2002. Desamours said state officials are going to look at Lee County’s compliance after February 2011 and decide if a fine will be imposed, based on figures from school enrollment in October 2010.
“Had we been on the strictest level of compliance at this current level, our penalty this year would have been $2.6 million,” she said. “If we go to the new way, our penalty would be $7 million, more than double of what has been in the past.”
On the other hand, districts that manage to meet class-by-class compliance will be handed a 5 percent bonus from the state.
The amendment being presented to voters in November would expand class size numbers to no more than 21 in elementary, 25 in middle and 30 in high school, and allow districts to calculate compliance through school averages rather than class-by-class counts.
The superintendent is expected to present his proposed budget at the May 18 meeting and the board may have to seriously consider raising school taxes to plug budget shortfalls.
Chairman Steve Teuber said recent legislation from the Florida Senate is forcing the Lee County School District to increase its millage rate by 0.25. A rate of one mill generates $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik, on the other hand, said the board doesn’t have to raise taxes unless the members support to do so.
“No one forces us to do anything, we are elected officials,” said Chilmonik.
Other board actions:
* Superintendent James Browder signed an agreement to participate in the creation of a Biomedical Academy at Mariner High, a program to complement the high school’s newly founded Math, Science and Technology Academy.
* The Lee County School Board recognized approximately 70 teachers from elementary, middle and high schools for being Outstanding Subject Area Teachers of the Year for 2009-2010.