School officials apprehensive over class size

A 41-member panel starts mapping the pitfalls.

Published February 26, 2008

TAMPA - In the final stages of the state mandate to reduce class size, the "what-if's" seem never-ending.

What if a child changes schools midyear? What if a teacher is reassigned? What if a school runs out of space?

Or, what if this is a false alarm?

Hillsborough school officials began looking for answers Monday from a 41-person committee created to address their nightmares about the state's class size amendment. Hard caps on class sizes - the final and most restrictive phase - are due to kick in next year.

Never mind the growing push in Tallahassee to avoid such worst-case scenarios. Hillsborough school officials say they can't afford to wait and see what happens by the end of the legislative session in May.

"What if they don't change it?" deputy superintendent Ken Otero said.

Otero gave an example of how bad things could get: Durant High in Hillsborough's eastern reaches is crowded. Hillsborough has spare classrooms available at South Tampa's Robinson High.

He said balancing the populations could require a domino effect of boundary changes at eight high schools - moving kids from Durant to Armwood to Brandon to King to Middleton to Jefferson - before finally filling the empty seats at Robinson.

"There's no question it can work," Otero said. "But it's very, very painful."

But polls show smaller classes remain popular with voters. Six years ago, a constitutional amendment narrowly passed that set the ceiling of 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades four to eight and 25 in high schools by the 2010-11 school year.

As the deadline approaches, lawmakers are reviewing options. Initially, they set an earlier-than-required deadline to meet the limits by the fall, but that could be pushed back. Changes to current law would give districts greater flexibility to avert disaster, in the event that a handful of midyear arrivals puts a school over the limit.

Some critics still hold out hope that the amendment will be placed back on the ballot for voters to revise.

Hillsborough school officials made no secret of their feelings about the measure as they kicked off the committee on how to make it work, pointing out that the county's voters didn't favor it.

Hillsborough's approach is more aggressive than other local districts. School officials in Pasco and Pinellas counties have concerns about logistics, but are not convening committees to warn the community.

Hillsborough administrators outlined a host of problems - from funding to difficulties in finding qualified teachers and building enough classroom space.

School officials invited representatives from the business community to the discussion. Realtor Heather Shipherd of Smith & Associates will co-chair the class size committee.

She noted that home buyers and sales agents need access to information about neighborhood schools and any changes coming.

"We are the messengers," she said. "It's a concern that we get good information."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.