Broward News

State Slightly Reduces Broward County Class Size Penalties

After Broward County school district's appeal of the state-imposed penalty for violating class size restrictions, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith recommended that the county's penalty be reduced by $74,000 to $2.9 million -- a slight break he delivered on Tuesday, though less than Broward County officials had hoped for, according to the Miami Herald. Smith's recommendations will be finalized or rejected by the Legislative Budget Commission.

Following a gradual adjustment period, the state required full compliance with class size restrictions as of this year: 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth, and 25 for high school. About half of the state's school districts fell short of requirements.

Broward Superintendent Jim Notter told New Times that he knew it was unlikely his district would meet the new restrictions. "When you take a look at the very simple fact that children don't come in 18 packs, 22 packs, and 25 packs... then it becomes a scheduling nightmare," Notter said. In some cases, tight class size restrictions had a teeter-totter effect, causing traditionally small classes to grow. "It's extremely difficult when you have your AP classes that were traditionally in the light teens, and now you literally have to make them a 25 because of funding," Notter says.

Everyone agrees that small class sizes are ideal, but what "small" means, how much it should cost school districts, and the way the rules should be enforced have become ongoing points of contention between the Broward school district (and many others) and the state Department of Education.

The rush to rearrange Broward schools to meet class size requirements has been a chaotic process. Teachers of noncore classes like psychology transitioned into core-class roles, and some students who began the year with one teacher were forced to change classes six weeks into the school year. "It's traumatic in some cases," Notter says.

Notter blames Broward County's inability to meet class size requirements on the economy. Budgets constricted with the economic downturn after the state established 2010 as the deadline for full compliance. Notter maintains that the shortfall is due to outside economic influences, not decisions made within the district, though this has been a rocky couple of years for the School Board.

As reported on Bob Norman's blog, the Pulp, 2009-2010 was riddled with overdevelopment, bribery, and outright conflicts of interest in the district, along with two arrests due to an FBI investigation of corruption in Broward County. Former School Board member Beverly Gallagher pleaded guilty to bribery. And another former School Board member, Stephanie Kraft, and her husband, Mitch, faced felony corruption charges in October. Meanwhile, there is an excess of at least 15,000 seats in Broward County schools, a result of quick growth followed by the economic downturn, Notter says, noting that the School Board is working to improve things. "In terms of the ethics reform, our board has taken aggressive action to modify/change policies, purchasing policies, land policies, construction practices," he says.

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Leslie Minora