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Politics

School Districts Face Class-Size Fines of $31 Million

January 17, 2011 - 6:00pm

The State Board of Education issued $31.3 million in fines for public schools and another $355,000 for charter schools Tuesday for exceeding Florida's class-size limits, but much of that money could get funneled back into the schools that exceeded the caps.

As much as 75 percent of the fines could go back to districts that violated the class-size amendment if they submit a plan to the Board of Education before Feb. 15, outlining their strategy for compliance with the caps by October 2011. A maximum of 25 percent of the fines will go to schools and districts that did not exceed the class-size limits.

The fines could have been much higher.

Original penalties were set at about $40.8 million for public schools and $2.3 million for charter schools, but were reduced after 25 of the 35 school districts found in violation of the class-size caps appealed their fines. Some districts had their fines reduced due to unexpected student growth, and nine counties -- Flagler, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Madison, Okeechobee, Orange, Walton and Washington -- had their fines eliminated altogether.

Some districts, like the Palm Beach County School District, saw a reduction in their original fine without filing an appeal.

Their fine was reduced if they had more students come in than was projected, even if they didnt appeal, explained Cheryl Etters, public information officer for the Department of Education.

Despite the $835,000 reduction in Palm Beachs fine, the school district was still issued a $15.8 million fine, more than half of the fines given to public schools. Given the districts extensive violations, though, it makes sense. There were 21,246 classes in Palm Beach County that surpassed the class-size caps, nearly half of the total for public schools. By comparison, the district with the second-highest number of classes over the limits was Duval, with 7,704.

Nat Harrington, chief public information officer for the Palm Beach School District, said the district didnt appeal the fine because there was no issue with how students in each classroom were counted.

You can only appeal the fine if you had a technical problem with the counting, Harrington said.

He added that Palm Beach will look at reducing the number of credits required for graduation, combining some classes and other Department of Education recommendations in its plan to reach compliance with the class-size caps by October.

Florida voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution in 2002 limiting class sizes from pre-kindergarten through third grade to 18 students, from fourth to eighth grade to 22 students, and high school classes to 25 students. Reductions in class sizes came gradually, with full implementation at the classroom level to be completed by the 2010-2011 school year.

Legislators placed another amendment on the ballot before voters in 2010 that would have eased the caps by using school-wide averages, but voters rejected it.

Etters said that districts that fail to meet the limits after submitting a plan for compliance will face similar fines next year.

You have the same process in place, Etters said.

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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