Brevard County exceeds class-size caps to save money

Published On: Dec 24 2013 12:25:16 PM EST
Updated On: Oct 22 2013 11:32:30 AM EDT

Florida Today

Paul Hackmann teaches a geometry honors class at Viera High School on Monday. It is one of the district schools trying to keep all classes to 25 students to comply with state law.

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. -

In a strategic decision to save money, Brevard Public Schools allowed about 30 of its 82 schools to have more students per class than allowed by state law, Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports.

While the official state report is not yet available, district estimates on Friday show that the impact of breaking Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment varies between schools and classes.

Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High has one class out of compliance, but Williams Elementary in Rockledge has eight over the limit, according to the district count. And, then, there were schools like Viera High, which is in compliance in every class.

The school district will have to pay a fine to the state. But the amount will be far less than what the school district would have had to pay to hire the extra teachers needed to comply with the caps.

“Yes, we didn’t meet it like we have in the past,” said Cyndi Van Meter, Brevard’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “But it didn’t harm children. The approach we took this year was much less painful to the children and the teachers in the school.”

In 2002, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution mandating the limits. The law caps the number of students in core classes, such as English, to 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades four to eight and 25 students in grades nine to 12.

But the definition of a core class has changed over the years. It no longer includes foreign language classes, for example, nor Algebra 2, chemistry or physics.

“It’s tough to do 25,” Viera High teacher Paul Hackmann said of his geometry courses, which are capped thanks to the law. “I couldn’t imagine 35.”

An unintended consequence of the law, however, has been the impact on elective classes that are not governed by it.

“We all understand the intent of the law,” Viera principal Jim Hickey said. “There are winners and losers.”

Due to limited resources, middle and high schools are sometimes forced to put far more than 25 students inelective classes. That can take a toll.

“It’s exhausting,” teacher Heather James said of the 200 students she’s responsible for. A high school teacher in a course covered by the class-size limits would be responsible for no more than 150 students.

James has an average of 33 students in each period of Hawk Service Learning, a course where students study the issues surrounding a community need and plan a service project to help.

Freshman Mia Vargo, for one, doesn’t mind the additional students. “This class is very outspoken,” she said, explaining that she likes how much louder and more vibrant it is.

While the majority of Brevard schools meet the class-size requirements, even one student over in one class means the district broke the law and must pay a fine.

District leaders estimate the penalty will be $170,000, Brevard spokeswoman Michelle Irwin said. To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the salaries and benefits of about three to four teachers.

But that’s opposed to the substantial cost to hire enough teachers to be in compliance.

Sometimes, it comes down to one student. That was the case for Meadowlane Intermediate in West Melbourne, which had one third-grade class at 19 instead of 18 students.

“We’ve added teachers when we’ve needed to add teachers,” principal Kerri Nash said. “But there comes a time and a point where it does affect the budget, too, so you have to balance those things.”

Brevard took strategic steps to lower the penalty this year. A school might assign three extra students to one class, for example, instead of having one extra student in three classes.

That’s opposed to changes made in previous years to meet the law, such as splitting classes into two or reorganizing them into multigrade level classes — a jarring adjustment when made weeks after the school year began.

“In the end, the kids have benefited from the direction that we took this year,” Van Meter said.

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