Class-size goal may prompt area rezoning

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 11:01 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Saying it's up to school districts to figure out how to lower class sizes, Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday offered them an array of new "tools" to reduce crowded classrooms.
And those options could eventually force officials in Alachua County to rezone their schools so that students are distributed more evenly to classrooms.
Bush wants legislators to make it easier for school districts to open new charter schools, hire new teachers and even allow districts to offer private school vouchers as a way to meet the requirements of the class-size constitutional amendment passed last fall. He also wants to eliminate a law that prohibits the future use of portable classrooms.
If the districts fail to reduce class sizes, Bush said the state would come down with a "hammer," with the potential to order local school boards to use vouchers, double sessions, rezonings or year-round schools to meet the goals included in the amendment.
"The people passed this amendment, and we have a constitutional duty to implement it," Bush said. "I intend, in good faith, to work with the Florida Legislature to implement Amendment 9. Overcrowded schools are a problem in this state."
Bush's alternatives will likely only encourage officials in Alachua County to finally undergo a massive rezoning of their 39 elementary, middle and high schools, which many said is long overdue.
Schools in west Gainesville have become increasingly overcrowded over the years, while in east Gainesville, older schools have become underenrolled.
"I have a sense of urgency about rezoning anyway," Alachua County School Board member Ginger Childs said. "I am going to ask to move quickly on that because it was something that was put off last year. By the time the new bill comes down from the Legislature, we will have already started on the rezoning process."
School Board member Wes Eubank agreed on the rezoning issue, while remaining confident the district will find a way to enact the amendment.
"Even without a state law, that's something we had to discuss," he said. "We're going to go back through the budget with a fine-tooth comb and look for the money in order to meet the constitutional requirements as well as do everything we can for our employees."
Voters approved the class-size amendment in November by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.
The measure says that the state should give school districts enough money over the next eight years to reduce class sizes to no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, no more than 22 students in grades four through eight and no more than 25 in high school.
The amendment also says districts should begin lowering class sizes by an average of two students a year starting this fall.
Bush complained loudly about the amendment while campaigning for re-election last year, and was even caught on tape saying he had "devious plans" to undo the amendment should it pass.
He criticized his Democratic opponent Bill McBride for supporting the measure and said if passed it would "block out the sun."
But Bush earlier this week recommended a 2003 budget to state lawmakers that asked them to spend $3 billion in the next year to meet the first round of requirements under the class-size law. Most of the money would be for new construction and would come from borrowing against future proceeds of a state tax charged to cable, phone and satellite dish bills.
On Thursday, Bush unveiled a plan meant to show districts how to meet the requirements of the amendment and what the state will do if districts fall short.
Under the proposal:
  • School districts must consider using alternative class scheduling, keeping schools open beyond normal operating hours, and redrawing school attendance zones as ways to lower class sizes.
  • The state would repeal laws that cap the number of charter schools in each county, limit the number of students that can be in one school, as well as a requirement that all districts eliminate portables.
  • School districts that are below class-size requirements would be allowed to use class-size reduction money for other purposes, including boosting teacher salaries.
  • Beginning in 2004, any district that has not reduced class sizes by an average of two students would be required to rezone, offer double sessions, year-round schools or vouchers. School districts still failing to meet the law in 2008 would be subject to sanctions by the State Board of Education.
  • $2.8 billion would be provided for classroom construction over the next five years. Most of the money would go to high-growth counties, but $100 million would be provided to school districts that build schools cheaply and another $500 million would go to districts that have already raised taxes to help build schools.
    Bush said it would not be fair to direct all the class-size money to South Florida districts such as Miami-Dade that have rejected local tax increases while other districts such as Sarasota and Manatee have raised taxes.
    Eubank and fellow board member Tina Turner are both against offering double sessions of school, which would include running day and night sessions for students.
    "Having double sessions would be my last choice," Eubank said.
    The first response from amendment backers and school district officials about Bush's plan was cautious, yet supportive.
    "We're glad to see he's making an attempt to actually implement the amendment," said state Sen. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Davie, a co-chairwoman of the Coalition to Reduce Class Size.
    Still Wasserman-Schultz says she was "disturbed" by the governor's recommendation to expand the use of vouchers and use year-round schools and rezoning attendance zones as way to lower class sizes.
    "We don't think people voted for more vouchers when they approved the amendment," Wasserman-Schultz said. "We don't think they voted for year-round schools or forced busing."
    Republican lawmakers responsible for passing a class-size bill during the upcoming session praised Bush's initial approach.
    "I'm very pleased with the toolbox approach of having a number of ways instead of a one size fits all," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the House general education subcommittee.
    Sun staff writer Cathi Carr contributed to this report.
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