A mandate to reduce class size in Dade schools could mean the end of electives

Miami-Dade schools may have to cut elective classes in the upcoming school year in order to abide by a constitutional amendment that was passed eight years ago, a panel of experts said Monday evening.

State Reps. Anitere Flores and Erik Fresen and Miami-Dade Public School administrators Richard H. Hinds and Iraida Mendez-Cartaya were the panel members who discussed the future of education. They were hosted by the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations at the Kendall Village Center in West Kendall where about 80 people attended and listened.

The situation began in November 2002 when voters approved Amendment 9, which called for classroom size reductions. Schools were given until the 2010-2011 school year to comply.

The deadline is now here and the amendment will cost an additional $94 million for Miami-Dade Public Schools to comply, Mendez-Cartaya said.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the November 2002 amendment to the state constitution mandates the maximum number of students in core-curricula courses assigned to a teacher by the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year to be:

18 students in Pre-K through grade 3
22 students in grades 4 through 8 and
25 students in grades 9 through 12

The plan called for reducing the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year beginning with the 2003-2004 school year until the maximums were met in the 2010-2011 school year. During the first three school years, average class size had to be met at the district level.

During the next three school years, thanks to an extension created by the 2009 Legislature for an additional year, size had to be met at the school level.

Now, with the 2010-2011 school year just a few months away, class sizes must be met at the classroom level or there will be penalties. For each child over the limit, there will be a $2,900 fine.

This time the legislature wants voters to pass a referendum in November that would propose to use a combination of averages and hard cap numbers for class size reduction, allowing for flexibility. Legislators said they feel that the use of averages over hard caps is not working.

“That came as a result of conversations over the last couple of years with parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members, saying we have an issue with this flexibility,” said Flores, who is chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Committee. “When you are working with averages you have problems. You can make numbers and averages say whatever you want.”

Flores further explained: There is a 4th grade classroom at Ludlam Elementary that has 31 students and one that only has 15 students.

The current legislation states no individual classroom can be over the limit. The referendum would give the community an opportunity to vote for a mix of averages and hard caps. To pass, it would need a 60 percent vote.

The referendum would cost $34 million to implement, Mendez-Cartaya said, which is better than the current $94 million.

If the referendum passes, individual classrooms could go up an additional three students in elementary to 21; an additional four in middle, and five in high school. Individual classrooms could go up but the average number of students in each grade level would have to stay at 18, 22, and 25. For example, for any elementary school class that you have at 21, you would need to have another class at 15 in order to make those averages.

According to school administrators, most schools are in compliance with the averages, Hinds said. “When you go below the surface, the constitutional language only applies to what are called core classes: language arts, math, science and social studies,” Hinds said. “Miami-Dade County has a very rich elective program which easily comprises $100 million of expenditures.”

Hinds suggested that electives could be cut in order to meet the $94 million shortfall, unless the referendum passes.

The constitution states “payments of the costs associated with meeting these requirements [class size reduction] is the responsibility of the state and not of local school districts. The legislature shall provide sufficient funds to maintain the average number of students required by this subsection.” But, the state of Florida does not have the money.

“Where is the penalty on the legislature for not funding the schools?” said Artie Leichner, vice president of the United Teachers of Dade. “Is this part of the devious plan, to make the penalties so heinous for the people who have been trying to implement it so you are going to force the public into a situation?

The answer to the funding question has to do with the mortgage crisis and downturn in state property taxes, which has caused a shortfall in state revenues.

Another problem: The classroom counts will be submitted on the second Friday in October and penalties will be assessed, but the election for the referendum is not until November. According to Frensen, this is because a similar referendum was being looked at last year but was not made available to the voters because it didn’t pass. There is an upcoming election in August but according to the law, referendums must be in the general election in November.

One loophole: School districts not in compliance who submit a plan to the Department of Education stating the reasons why and how they will comply in the future may be eligible for a penalty refund between 75 to 100 percent.

But it’s a catch-22 for the school district. “This really shows, in my personal opinion, the way the situation is cast now is just not an intelligent approach to public policy,” Hinds said. They can comply with the current constitution and cut elective teachers to hire core teachers before the October deadline. But if the referendum passes, they will have too many core teachers and not enough elective teachers, causing the opposite to happen the next school year. If they don’t comply, they will be hit with penalties, even if the referendum passes.

“The only way we can cope with it is by cannibalizing our program.”

Broward schools announced Thursday they will cut electives in 120 schools in order to comply.

For West Kendall Today

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