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Schools grapple with amendments

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

INVERNESS -- David Hickey wishes he could answer the questions, but he can't.

He couldn't tell the other members of the Citrus County School Readiness Coalition on Wednesday what passage of the universal prekindergarten amendment would mean to them or to his school district.

And he couldn't answer questions later on how the district will cope with the strict class size reduction regulations that Florida voters also approved.

The costs to Citrus alone have been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars because officials guess the district will need to build a new elementary school and a new middle/high school to deal just with the class sizes.

Added to that is the cost of staffing and furnishing the new schools.

And where will they put all those new prekindergarten students who might be part of the school system in 2005?

"I don't have the answers to the questions," Hickey said. "I will tell you that we can't build new schools and staff them in the next few years."

He added that he knows that the state is supposed to find a funding source. "I hope they have a plan," he said skeptically.

"It's really throwing a monkey wrench into everything," said School Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman. "We're going to end up putting kids everywhere that we can fit them."

Under the prekindergarten amendment, by 2005, all 4-year-old children will be offered a voluntary prekindergarten program. Where that program would be housed is not specified, but school officials are already talking about what it might take to provide that program in the schools.

The class size reduction amendment, which was approved statewide but not supported in Citrus (61 percent of the voters were against it) requires districts to phase in smaller classes with final target numbers achieved by 2010.

Phasing in those smaller classes must begin next year, removing what amounts to about 400 students from Citrus classes in the first year, Deutschman said.

"I see us using every square inch of space" including storage rooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums and portables, she said. "It will be interesting."

With the possibility of such dire financial consequences on the horizon, board member Patience Nave said she believes the district needs to halt its spending plans and building plans until more answers are known.

"I am really and truly scared because I know that we are moments away from putting names on contracts" for several large construction projects, she said. Those include renovations and additions at Crystal River Middle School and Homosassa Elementary School, two projects that total nearly $10-million.

"I'm very concerned," Nave said. "This is a serious problem and I don't know what we're going to do."

The Readiness Coalition talked briefly about the prekindergarten issue during its meeting. Members are inviting newly elected state senators Nancy Argenziano and Mike Fasano and new state Rep. Charles Dean to their December meeting to talk about their legislative concerns.

Several members had specifics to share about the prekindergarten plan.

Nancy Haynes, of the school district staff, said the coalition needs to be very involved in shaping whatever rules are attached to the program. "And we want to encourage them to fully fund it without reducing any funds from the K-12 public education dollars," she added.

Hickey repeated those funding concerns and also said that the district cannot afford to provide all prekindergarten services on its own. Currently the district funds a program for disadvantaged children and the coalition funds programs in private day care centers for other disadvantaged children.

County Commissioner Vicki Phillips, also a coalition member, warned that it would not be good to see the same thing happen with prekindergarten as happened with the formation of the coalition. First the coalition was formed and began operating and then the state started developing operational rules.

"That has done nothing but give us problems from the get-go," Phillips said.

"I don't think there is enough Valium in the world to go through the same things with universal prekindergarten that we've gone through with school readiness," agreed Linda Foy, another coalition member.

Hickey said later that despite the concerns about effects of the amendments, he doesn't want to see the school district's current construction plans scrapped and he is not in favor of spending freezes.

Portables and rezoning might provide some temporary help with implementing the initiatives. "I don't know the outcome, but we'll learn a little bit day by day," he said. "We will begin to work on our plan."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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