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A Times Editorial

Though painful, Amendment 9 is critical to progress


© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

The Citrus County School Board, like its counterparts throughout the state, is faced with the daunting prospect of turning the voters' decision on smaller class sizes into a reality. Much is still unknown about how Amendment 9 will affect the school districts, but one thing has been clear from the start: It's going to take a lot of money to make it work.

That could mean spending cuts, tax increases or, more likely, some combination of both.

Another obvious point is that the state will be looking for ways to shove these distasteful decisions onto the school districts rather than make the tough choices itself. Expect to hear the mantra of "local control" a lot in the coming months.

The first step for the School Board and the administration should be to pause and take a deep breath. This is not the time for hasty decisions on important projects that are already in the pipeline. It may take years before the full impacts are clear, and no district should panic.

Officials should also resist the urge to blame the voters for putting them in this position. While it is true that voters approved the amendment, it cannot be said that they did so without knowing that the amendment comes with an enormous price tag. That message was driven home repeatedly by opponents during the run-up to the Nov. 5 vote. Despite the varying predictions of the costs, from $8-billion to $27.5-billion depending on who was speaking, voters knew it would not be a cheap fix, and they approved it anyway.

The most realistic way to see the vote is as a message from frustrated Floridians who have been bombarded for years by reports on how the state's educational system is failing its children and the taxpayers. Voters are fed up with hearing our state's humiliating rankings in areas from graduation rates and testing to teacher salaries and class sizes. Those who were around when the Florida Lottery was born also recall the promises made then about how the revenues would enhance education, only to be fooled by the dastardly Lottery two-step: Lottery funds went in the front door while an equal amount went out the back.

Few would argue that reducing the size of classes is an educational cure-all, but millions of voters believe it is a start. Would any real efforts have been made in cutting class sizes without the amendment? Not likely. The voters want action, and the amendment, despite its flaws, is a mandate for change.

That's where the Citrus School Board comes in.

In the coming months, there will be calls for slashing from the budget everything that does not deal directly with the twin priorities of the FCAT and, now, smaller classes. Perceived luxuries such as art and music programs, extracurricular activities and many other enhancers will be targets. Funds for innovative programs such as the district's successful academies and the Renaissance Center may be challenged.

Everything will be in play. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

At long last, the district will be forced to make truth in budgeting more than just a concept. The days of padded budgets, overstuffed and hidden contingency funds, creating jobs such as the assistant to the assistant to the assistant department head will have to end. Those are positive developments.

But the board should take care not to overreact. Board members sounded an appropriately cautious tone last week and pledged to take a much closer look at expenditures while they await direction from the state on how to cope with Amendment 9.

The governor lobbied hard against the measure during the election, so he can be expected to try to weaken its implications at every turn. The other great minds in Tallahassee soon will have a crack at it as well. For the first time in a decade, Citrus County will be represented in the Senate and the House by people who can actually find us on a map. The onus is on them to protect our interests as the populous areas of the state, especially South Florida, maneuver to scoop up whatever funds emerge to deal with the class size fixes.

School districts around the state are now entering uncharted waters. Our leaders must dip in their toes as well, but they must continue to proceed with care.

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