MANATEE COUNTY — With just days before the start of school, McNeal Elementary Principal Norma Scott is racking her brain on how to best meet Florida’s Class-size Amendment, which this year limits the number of children in each class on a room-by-room basis.
McNeal was constructed before the Manatee County School District began building schools to Class Size Amendment requirements. At 731 students, it technically is under its 766-student capacity. However, because of the amendment, McNeal already has reached its class-size cap, which is forcing Scott to find additional rooms to house classes.
Just last week, Scott hired a teacher for a split kindergarten-first grade class to meet compliance.
“That will be our very last room available,” Scott said. “We already have 731 (students enrolled), and I’m already wondering what I have to do if I have to open another class.”
Scott, now in her second year at the school, said she’s looking at using movable walls in some classrooms areas to make more, smaller rooms or to convert a teacher workroom into classroom space as a last resort.
“It’s kind of a big shuffle,” she said, noting any room changes have a ripple effect. “(But) it’s a nice problem to have because it means people are coming back into the community.”
Manatee Superintendent Tim McGonegal has maintained that he would do what he feels is best for educating students before meeting class-size requirements. This year, the district is opting to pay penalties for failing compliance requirements rather than paying to fund the changes at every school. The savings equates to about $2.875 million as long as the district develops a plan for complying completely next school year. But even if it doesn’t, it would still pay only $500,000 compared to the roughly $3 million needed to comply.
“We pretty much made a qualitative decision it would have been very expensive to strictly meet class size,” said Jim Drake, assistant superintendent of business services. “We expect that if the estimates hold up, that we’re going to have certain pockets of non-compliance. We know there’s a penalty associated with not being in strict compliance with the class size, but when we put the dollars to it, it was more reasonable for us to take the penalty.”
To meet full compliance at every school, the district would have to hire about 50 teachers, Drake said.
At schools where compliance may be not achieved, the district could opt to bring in portables to provide additional classrooms temporarily, or other options such as offering virtual classes for high school students. Drake said a more long-term compliance measure could be to realign school attendance zones. But even under that scenario, the district would have to pay for busing displaced students.
“It’s going to be an option of last resort,” Drake said of changing attendance zones. “Realigning school attendance zones is hardly ever pleasant. We feel like it will be much cheaper for us to just pay the penalty.”
The district also is hoping voters will approve a measure in November that modifies the existing amendment to keep average classroom sizes, as required in years past, but not the hard per-classroom count that is proving difficult for local school districts. Drake said under that scenario, the district could comply easily.
Contact Pam Eubanks at email@example.com.
The 2002 voter-approved law caps the number of children per classroom in pre-kindergarten through third grade at 18; in grades four through eight at 22; and in grades nine through 12 at 25 for core classes in the areas of language arts, reading, math, science, social studies and foreign language.