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Money questions dog amendments

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BOWEN
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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


So, you want your children enrolled in a public prekindergarten program and to attend a school with no more than 18 children in each class until the third grade.

After that, it's okay to bump the class sizes up to 22 children -- until high school, where the ceiling will be set at 25 students per teacher.

That's what Floridians said they wanted Tuesday, when they traveled to the polls to approve a pair of constitutional amendments.

In rebuking Gov. Jeb Bush at the same time it handed him a decisive re-election, the public said it is tired of being cheap when it comes to schools.

We notice the Pasco electorate didn't vote that way. Doesn't matter. The statewide mandates mean one thing for certain:

Break out the wallet.

The estimated cost just to build the necessary classroom spaces in Pasco County is $113-million and growing.

That doesn't account for hiring teachers, ancillary staff or providing transportation. Nor does it account for growth. The district adds a couple of thousand children annually. The cost estimate is a conservative figure prepared by Mike Rapp, the district's director of planning.

There are 3,827 kindergarten pupils in Pasco schools. Rapp figured a similar number of 4-year-olds are eligible for pre-K. The program to be offered is voluntary. So, for this exercise, Rapp asked me to guess a number of participants. We settled on 75 percent, or about 2,870 children, after learning parents already had been contacting the school district about enrolling.

That projected enrollment figure could fluctuate wildly because some parents may choose to keep their children in private pre-K programs, with private all-day baby sitters or with a stay-at-home parent.

Regardless, the Florida Department of Education sets the construction cost per prekindergarten pupil at $11,600. With a 75 percent participation rate, the tab comes to more than $33-million -- to provide what is essentially a 14th grade level in the public school system. As we said before, teachers cost extra.

But that is small potatoes compared to the class-size amendment.

The Pasco School District has space for 34,576 children in 1,367 classrooms for regular, basic education programs.

Rapp didn't use special eduction requirements, vocational education, science labs and other variables in devising the cost estimate.

Under the class size amendment, the district will be prohibited from using 6,223 student stations at its schools.

In other words, the current classrooms can hold more children than Florida's Constitution now will allow.

Building space for those displaced students, using state construction cost guidelines, totals more than $80-million. That's equivalent to approximately eight new elementary schools. And that is just for this year's student body.

The solution is supposed to come from Tallahassee. Don't hold your breath.

During the recent campaign, I illustrated for Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Dade City, the symptoms of school crowding, including lunch periods stretching from 10:40 in the morning until less than 90 minutes before dismissal.

Teachers use valuable instructional time to accommodate snack periods because of the skewed eating schedule.

Snack time can be instructional, too, Littlefield said.

Oh.

Shall we assume sharing and hand-washing will be added to the FCAT exam?

Not everyone has his or her head in the sand. The governor's campaign proposal to bond against future telecommunications tax proceeds will help handle growth, but won't make a dent in the demands from the class-size amendment.

Besides, superintendent John Long already has that money spent. Sort of.

By refinancing its current debt, using impact fee revenue and the portion of property taxes allocated for construction, Long estimated the district faces a $50-million shortfall in building seven new schools to house 10,000 new students by 2008.

Coincidentally, the district estimates its share of communication tax proceeds to be about $10-million a year, effectively eliminating the shortfall.

Still, that does nothing to address the existing space crunch.

The equivalent of nine elementary schools remain housed in portable classrooms scattered across district campuses.

The last time the Legislature tackled school crowding, a 1997 special session resulted in borrowing against Lottery revenue and using tobacco settlement proceeds.

Pasco obtained more than $40-million.

The net result?

No headway in eliminating the army of red sheds at Pasco's schools.

Getting rid of those probably will take a constitutional amendment.

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