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Friday, February 18, 2011

Legislature shirks responsibilities... again...

From the Florida Tribune

by Kim Macqueen

Senators talking about tweaking the controversial class size amendment lashed out Thursday at an attorney who may sue the state if it pushes ahead with fines against school districts that aren't meeting the strict requirements.

School districts could be hit with hefty fines for failing to meet the caps included in the original 2002 constitutional amendment: 18 children in K-3 classrooms, 22 children in 4th through 8th grade and 25 students in high school classes. School districts, however, have said they plan to sue if the state presses with more than $30 million in proposed fines.

Attorney Ron Meyer -- who will likely help out with the proposed lawsuit -- put the blame on state lawmakers, saying that they pushed ahead last year with a constitutional amendment designed to undo some of the strict caps included in the original class size amendment passed by voters instead of setting aside what was needed for "final implementation."

Meyer told senators that now "32 million in fines are out there right now, ready to be imposed," because school districts "were not given the categorical funding that was requested in order to meet class size goals for the final-stage implementation."

"It didn't come. It was unfunded," Meyer said. "So what we have are districts who didn't have the resources to be able to do it, and are now being fined for not being able to do it, when the court has said it's a funding obligation of the state, not local school districts."

Senators made clear their support for draft legislation being readied by committee chair David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, designed to relax class size restrictions. But -- after pointedly noting that the committee room was filled with senators who have worked on the issue over the years -- Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, took issue with the assertion that class size is an unfunded mandate. The state has set aside billions since 2002 to comply with the amendment.

"I will assure you that we provided enough money and we put it into a separate line so that everybody could see it. It's beyond me that we continue to say we didn't fund the class size amendment," Wise said. "Now if the districts decided to give bigger pay raises than they could afford, that's not our problem. I just really get irritated when people say we didn't provide enough money."

Meyer specified that $354 million was requested for the measure and $82 million provided, but said he wasn't there "to quibble about money;" just that "there are some constitutional issues that should be resolved at the table rather than at the courthouse."

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, echoed Wise, pointing to documents showing 800,000 empty student stations statewide in districts where administrators have chosen to spend class-size funding in other areas. She told Simmons she didn't "think Mr. Meyer is here in good faith."

"I'm afraid you are here to quibble about money," she told Meyer. "What I hear you saying is that unless the legislature puts $354 million in the budget this year there will be a lawsuit ... I hope we can reach consensus and pass legislation this year that helps the students without being threatened with a lawsuit on the back end, because that's what we've lived for the last ten years."

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