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    Class-size measure has unlikely enemies

    By STEPHEN HEGARTYand KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 21, 2001


    A petition drive to limit classroom size in Florida's schools is nearing a crucial stage and could have enough signatures to get the necessary review by the state Supreme Court as early as next month.

    The Coalition to Reduce Class Size has more than the 48,000 signatures required to get the proposed constitutional amendment before the state's highest court, according to coalition chairman Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami. The group hopes to get the referendum on the 2002 ballot.

    The initiative already is facing resistance from a perhaps unexpected front. School superintendents who would love to have smaller classes are withholding support because they don't think they will have enough money to build the schools and hire the teachers that would be needed if class sizes were significantly reduced.

    "It couldn't be done without millions of capital dollars being made available," said Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "Anyone who is circulating that without informing the public of the economic impact is doing a disservice to the people who are signing it."

    Volunteers and professional signature gatherers have approached school districts to see whether they can collect signatures at schools and school events. They have gotten a cool reception in the Tampa Bay area.

    Pasco Superintendent John Long turned down such a request. He, like Hinesley, worries that the referendum could do more harm than good.

    "If we're not clear about the funding, this could create a nightmare for kids," Long said. "If we are constitutionally bound to limit class size and we don't have the money to do it, I can't do it without going on double sessions."

    Meek said the financial impact has been taken into account. The ballot summary specifies that the Legislature -- not local school districts -- would be required to "provide funding for sufficient classrooms" and to "pay for the costs associated with reduced class size."

    Said Meek: "If I were that superintendent, I'd be down at Kinko's making copies of the petition."

    Meek's drive for a constitutional amendment is just the latest in a series of attempts at reducing class size in a state where school construction has not been able to keep up with the influx of school-age children.

    The petition drive grew out of Meek's frustration at not being able to get a law to reduce class sizes passed in the Legislature. In recent years, legislative leaders have made their own attempts at reducing class sizes, and the issue was a major theme in the 1998 governor's race. Despite all the efforts, classes remain crowded.

    In Pinellas County, the goal is to have 23 students in primary classrooms (kindergarten, first and second grades) and 28 in intermediate classrooms (third, fourth and fifth grades). At the middle and high school levels, the average classroom has about 30 students, though sometimes classes top out closer to 35.

    The referendum calls for a maximum of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades 4 through 8 and 25 students in high school. It would be phased in starting in 2003, with a required reduction by at least two students, on average, per year. The class size caps would have to be achieved by 2010.

    The petition drive has the support of several of the state's teachers unions, who have contributed much of the $72,000 raised by the coalition as of the June 30 report.

    It does not have much support from Florida's new Secretary of Education Jim Horne.

    "It's a laudable goal, but I think we're putting way too many things in the Constitution," Horne said.

    Rob McMahon, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he and other union representatives support the petition but called it "at the present time impossible."

    "Great idea. Makes the leaders in the Legislature look good but without the funding, it's a shell," McMahon said. "It's a hollow, hollow attempt to do something good for kids. It really won't. We can't afford the teachers and the classrooms."

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