The Class Size Amendment is the most pressing of all budget concerns this fall, school district officials said Tuesday.
Voters passed the Class Size Amendment in 2002, a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes by 18 in elementary, 22 in middle and 25 in high school. The Lee County School District and other counties across the state have since been struggling to comply with the amendment.
"The Class Size Amendment has not been funded by the state; it has been funded on the backs of the districts and people in the districts," said Superintendent James Browder. "It has not been funded at the level that the constitution required."
Florida legislators decided this year to put an initiative on the November ballot asking voters if they want class size standards relaxed by allowing districts to reach compliance through school-wide averages rather than by class. The Lee County School District is now formulating ideas to deal with the amendment whether it is approved or denied.
One idea is to "invite teachers (middle and high school) to work an extra period" during the school day. This will allow the district to cover new classes without hiring new teachers. Some teachers may also choose to work an extra period at their hourly rate or work during their planning period and take that time after school.
Browder said approximately 20 percent of secondary teachers in Lee County would be open to working an extra period, according to a teacher survey.
"The secondary folks understand the fact we are in a real tight situation," said Browder.
Mark Castellano, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County, said a contract provision does allow teachers to work an extra period as long as they're paid their hourly wage.
"It's been in the contract for years and some teachers may look at it as a way to make extra money," he said. "My only concern is that I don't want teachers to be pressured into doing it."
High school teachers in Lee County already work on a block schedule, meaning they teach four 1.5 hour blocks each day and get a free planning period every other day. Many teachers were upset at the beginning of this year because they no longer had time to plan on a daily basis.
Castellano said one of the union's other concerns is to bring back daily planning, but he understands that tight budgets and dwindling revenue sources are going to make this goal difficult. And much of how the educational system in Lee County will look in the future depends on what happens with class size.
"We are committed to getting daily lesson plans backs, but we understand there is a need to plan for when the stimulus dollars go away," he said.
Lee County also is considering the use of long-term substitutes to act as co-teachers when a class size exceeds the limits spelled out in the amendment. Under this model, the substitute would stay in that room until the class size falls below state requirements.
Out of the $15.8 billion doled out to school districts across the state to fund class size compliance since 2002, Lee County has received $535.5 million, according to a report from Budget Director Ami Desamours. The district is scheduled to receive another $92.4 million in class size dollars next year.
If the November initiative to loosen restrictions doesn't pass, the district may need to spend as much as $5 million to hire new teachers and potentially install more classroom space.
Lee County will receive $27 million from the state as part of the Florida Education Finance Program in the fiscal year 2011, $1 million less than this year. Overall, the school district has received $35 million worth of federal stimulus funds to fill any gaps in the budget, but that funding is expected to end next year.
Some Lee County residents also are concerned with an increase in the local property tax rate. Browder said the rate is going to increase, but insisted that neither he nor the board is increasing taxes. Instead, the district's Required Local Effort is being raised by the state.
"Our millage rate will go up in Lee County because you have to raise the money this year based on last year," said Browder. "All those years we declined a little bit each year, now Lee County is one of those districts where the millage rate will ease up instead of continuing the downward spiral."
Next year's school district budget should be around $1.402 billion, including $735 million in the operating budget, $48.9 million for debt service and $382 million in the capital fund. The district's debt service is currently at 87 percent of its legal limit.
A school budget workshop scheduled for June 21 was cancelled at the last minute for unstated reasons. Instead the school board received a budget briefing on Tuesday afternoon and at this point the board hasn't rescheduled the workshop.
"We got a very comprehensive overview and in my point of view it was satisfactory," said Vice Chairman Elinor Scricca.
The school board will set millage rates and approve its tentative budget on July 29, receive one more budget briefing in August and approve a final budget on Sept. 14.