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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Polk County asks, please fund our future

From the Polk County Ledgers editorial page

While Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators talk about funding private school vouchers, cutting taxes and reducing state spending by $3.5 billion, school district officials across the state are waiting for the other shoe to drop in regard to Florida's constitutional mandate for smaller classroom sizes.

That "other shoe" could come in the form of $43 million in fines recommended by the state Department of Education to some 28 school districts that have not sufficiently reduced classroom sizes.

This is a textbook definition of adding insult to injury. For years the Florida Legislature has refused to provide sufficient funding to comply with that mandate. Now the bureaucrats in Tallahassee want local school districts to pay for the Legislature's neglect.

That's why the Florida School Boards Association and some 20 school districts are contemplating suing the state to contest the fines.

"The state constitution makes funding the school districts a state obligation. They didn't give the funds that were needed to do this. How can they now hold the districts accountable for what they didn't fund?" Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney involved in the pending suit told reporters.

It's clear that Scott and the Legislature have no intention of fulfilling their constitutional duties in regard to the class-size mandate. The courts may be the only recourse school districts have.


Polk County did well to meet the class-size requirements and avoid fines.

However, Polk school officials -- elected and staff -- find fault with class size and have worked themselves into a frenzy over it. The requirements are straightforward (assuming state funding): The maximum number of students per class is 18 for pre-K through third grade, 22 for fourth grade through eighth grade and 25 in high school. The limits do not apply to extracurricular classes.

School Board member Frank O'Reilly complains that the School District must meet the class-size requirements every day. "This doesn't make sense and it's causing turmoil," O'Reilly says. "What about the students being disrupted? Just use common sense. It is so inconceivable that they are demanding this."

Did he think he could just pick a few days from the calendar to comply with the constitution?

O'Reilly is right on one point: using common sense. Indeed, the School District has been sensible in leaving some class seats open. That way, when additional students arrive, room is available.

Oddly, Superintendent of Schools Sherrie Nickell finds fault: "For every seat that goes unfilled, there is a cost."

To the students in such a class, it is a benefit. They gain more of their teacher's time and attention.

That was the point of the class-size amendment, placed before the voters in 2002 and 2010, and affirmed both times. Celebrate the opportunity to improve Polk's public education.

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