A near overflow audience of more than 100 educators, teachers and residents split a straw vote 50-50 on whether or not to reduce school class sizes as currently required by a 2002 Florida Constitution amendment.
The straw vote during a Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations (KFHA) town meeting on May 11 ended more than two hours of discussion of a Florida Legislature-approved voter referendum that will go on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. It would ask voters to approve modifying state-mandated class sizes set to become effective this October.
Florida voters in 2002 overwhelmingly approved capping class sizes throughout the state at 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.
The amendment on the November ballot would roll back those requirements so that class size would be calculated at a gradelevel average, not an individual classroom cap, the legislature’s answer to disrupting budgets during the down economics of today.
The amendment will need 60 percent voter approval to permit class sizes above the 2002 mandated levels by up to three students per class in elementary schools; four in middle schools, and five in senior highs while avoiding non-compliance penalties of $2,900 per student for those not adhering to the constitutional standard.
“If the vote our audience took is any indication, the referendum will most likely fail in November,” said Miles E. Moss, KFHA president, who asked for the informal sampling just before adjourning the two-and-ahalf- hour panel discussion at 9:30 p.m.
“But this is just the start of the debate,” Moss continued. “We’ll have further speakers and programs on the funding issues throughout the summer at KFHA meetings.” Prior to the action, two school officials and two state legislators offered commentary and answered classroom cap questions, then heard critiques of the recent teacher tenure issue vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist in April.
School administrators on the panel included Dr. Richard Hinds, Miami-Dade Schools associate superintendent and chief financial officer for the district, and Irada Montez-Cartaya, an assistant superintendent for intergovernmental affairs, joined by State Rep. Erik Fresen who chaired the Prekindergarten to Grade 12 House Policy Committee in the recent legislative session, and State Rep. Anitere Flores, committee vice chair who represents District 114 which includes a part of Kendall.
While neither legislator served in the 2002 session, both were criticized for helping allow a situation to develop that could cost Miami-Dade Schools an estimated $30 million in fines, based on a per-student penalties, even if the referendum passes.
Penalties are not already-funded dollars but represent “reductions of future state funding to Miami-Dade,” Rep. Flores explained. “Nevertheless, penalty dollars would become funding that will wind up elsewhere in Florida, not in our schools.” Currently, Miami-Dade receives $4 per pupil in annual state funding against a statewide average of $1.22, Rep. Flores noted.
“We saw the situation coming during the down economics of the 2009 session but our attempt then to pass cap-sizing change failed of legislative support,” Rep. Fresen said.
Should class sizes allow three to five per class exceptions if the November vote passes, a time gap until the vote is certified and the amendment becomes effective will still accrue penalties expected to cost Miami- Dade $30 million, Dr. Hinds estimated. Should the referendum be defeated in November, county schools stand to lose up to $90 million by failing to meet cap standards voted eight years ago.
“That’s in addition to the $400 million we’ve cut back in budget reductions over the last two years,” he said.
“Moreover, if we try in October to soften potential penalties by getting rid of nonelective class teachers (for example: music, drama, arts, etc.) and readjust classes to only basic studies, and the referendum passes, we’ll have to re-hire teachers we fired after a successful ballot, Dr. Hinds said.
“Not only will that cost even more, in addition to the penalties, but where do we find new teachers for those we just replaced?” he asked rhetorically.
Former East Kendall Community Council vice chair Millie Herrera said the legislators should have financed part of educational needs to allow caps “by taxing out-of-state businesses that are not paying their fair share due to special exemptions now in place.”
Such savings were termed “a drop in the bucket” by Rep. Fresen who said they would only amount “to an $8-10 million saving,” adding “we studied more than 200 of them, one-by-one, in committee sessions. The difference was simply not significant.”
Other arguments on legislative mishandling of educational funding included allowing private school vouchers to continue instead of financing only “public” education, and continuation of charter school development during an economic downturn. Don Kearns, KFHA internal vice president, panel moderator, was credited by Moss along with Yvonne Kearns as “the couple spearheading development of information and organization of the panel.”