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Florida school districts ready to sue if hit with class size fines

Smaller class sizes are here to stay, and the stage is being set for a court battle over who will pay for them.

Voters had a chance with Amendment 8 on Tuesday's ballot to ease the class size limits they approved in 2002, and while a 54.5 percent majority approved loosening the restrictions, it wasn't the 60 percent needed to pass.

That means the school districts in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties can expect financial consequences for failing to meet the limits. If the state issues fines as expected, there will be litigation.

"We do not feel we were fully funded to meet this class size amendment," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Board Association. "Based on that, we will litigate the penalty clause."

Opponents of Amendment 8, led by outgoing State Senator Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said the state legislature fell $350 million short of its obligation to fund smaller classes throughout the state.

Blanton said as many as 15 districts across the state have fallen short of 100 percent compliance. That includes Broward County, (97.8 percent compliance, facing a maximum $2.3 million fine), and Palm Beach County, (80.2 percent compliance, facing a $3.8 million fine).

The penalties would be levied by the state Department of Education after a review of figures supplied by the districts last month. Spokesman Tom Butler said fines won't be announced until next month at the earliest, after the state and the school districts have analyzed the figures.

Butler said the districts could challenge the fines, especially those involving factors beyond their control, such as the arrival of an extra student after class size limits are met or, a more extreme example, last winter's influx of students following the earthquake in Haiti.

Districts wouldn't be expected to pay until sometime next year.

The 2002 class size amendment requires core subject classrooms to have no more than 18 students through third grade, a maximum of 22 students through eighth grade, and no more than 25 through high school. It did not include financial penalties, and it explicitly placed the burden for funding on the state legislature.

If local school boards succeed in challenging the fines, it would put the Republican-controlled state legislature in the position of having to come up with the revenue to fund smaller classes while resisting property tax hikes. With state economists predicting Florida will have $2.5 to $3 billion less to spend next year, Amendment 8 co-sponsor Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it was unlikely more money could be poured into any part of the budget, including public education.

State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Pasco County, who spearheaded the Yes on 8 campaign, released a statement Wednesday noting that more voters embraced Amendment 8 than embraced the 2002 measure, proving that a majority of Floridians want flexibility in the class size law.

Attempts to reach him by phone and email Wednesday were unsuccessful.

South Florida's districts, meanwhile, are still looking for ways to meet the limits in the years to come.

Palm Beach Schools Superintendent Art Johnson said he will suggest ways to make sure the district toes the line next year, but he would not reveal the plan just yet. Administrators want to wait until after four new board members are sworn into office Nov. 16.

Still, the district has already outlined the various methods that may be used to achieve compliance, including double sessions, year‐round schools, and re‐drawing school attendance zones to maximize use of school facilities.

Schools may no longer be able to offer the wide variety of courses, including advanced placement classes, Johnson said. Under-enrolled classes may be eliminated. Schools may be required to combine classes (i.e. multiple grade levels, gifted).

Schools may have to turn away students once their enrollment cap is reached. Students would be directed to nearest school with capacity.

In Broward, Superintendent Jim Notter said the plan of action will depend in large measure on how much the state legislature is willing, or compelled, to fund the core classes. Until then, he said, Broward will continue adjusting student schedules to keep aiming toward the 100 percent mark.

Broward is also struggling with the long-term question of how to ease crowding in mostly western schools by redrawing school boundaries. However, Notter said that process is largely unrelated to the larger class size issue.