Orange County School Board members might have finally found a way to make class-size reduction possible — reach into taxpayers' pocketbooks.
Board members on July 27 bumped the tax rate up by 25 cents for every $1,000 of a home's assessable value, saying it's the only way to prevent teacher layoffs and still abide by the class-size reduction amendment, which will be implemented in the 2010-2011 school year.
They also unanimously approved asking voters if they will pay an additional $1 per $1,000 of property value to save arts and athletics programs that would be cut when the stimulus funding cliff hits in 2011. The item will appear on the November ballot.
The .25 mil increase, for a $100,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption, is $19 a year. The 1 mil increase would be about $125 a year. The taxes would generate $22 million and $85 million a year, respectively.
The 1 mil increase would help fill a $90 million budget hole left when the federal stimulus money dries up in 2011.
The money would be used to maintain arts and athletic programs and to further supplement the class-size reduction mandate.
Many Orange County residents showed up to express both gratitude and dismay over the county's decision.
"Putting this on the ballot on November is something taxpayers don't need," Heinie Heinzelman, an anti-tax advocate, said. "It is not what's best for America at this time. Right now, we need to look at cutting expenses."
But Orange County resident Terry Olson disagreed.
"It's very American to give us the choice if we want to be taxed," Olson said. "Investing in local School Boards is really what is best for the economy. I feel like I'm getting a great deal with my taxes."
Orange County resident Susan Arnelman thanked the Board for their "fortitude" in putting this on the ballot. "Somebody paid to educate me, and I will pay to educate someone else," she said. "This is one worth doing because losing $85 million in revenue will really hurt the community."
School Board member Roach said he remains optimistic that voters will approve the tax for the children. "If it doesn't get voted in, then we don't get the money, and we would have to cut $90 million worth of programs for kids," he said. "I am always opposed to any cuts."
Bradley Gill, an Orange County teacher, a father and a student himself came out to offer his support of the .25 mil increase, which a two-year option made available by the Legislature.
"I ask you [the board] to continue your support, specifically for art education in Orange County. I feel strongly that math, reading and science is meaningless without art, music and theater," he said.
In November 2002, Florida voters decided they wanted smaller class sizes, and the School Board had until this year to figure out a way to cap kindergarten to third grade at 18 students, fourth to eighth grade at 22 students and ninth to 12th grade at 25 students. This applies only to core classes.
To adhere to the new requirements, schools will rely more on dual enrollment and virtual instruction and will review graduation policies and ''repurpose'' staff.
Repurposing staff would mean extracurricular teachers or faculty such as guidance counselors would teach core classes. Non-compliance of class size means heavy fines for the county.
"The class size amendment is not something that's new," school district Chief Financial Officer Rick Collins said. "We've been doing many of these strategies since its inception and will continue to move forward with these strategies."
What about teachers?
The Board supports the class-size amendment but thinks the language in the constitutional amendment needs to be more flexible. Language on the November ballot would do just that, Collins said. "It will make it easier to administer."
Now the language states that one student over the class size maximum in one class would be fine, but the teacher-student ratio schoolwide must meet criteria to avoid the fines. This would leave little leeway should there be an influx of new students or not enough extra staff to redistribute them.
Board member Kathleen Gordon expressed concerns over certification when repurposing staff. "Teachers want to be used in their area. Mutual consent may be needed for a teacher to teach outside their area, but teachers are scared," she said. "Teachers will say yes to it for the good of the school and their jobs, but when you have an unhappy teacher, you have unhappy children."
Superintendent Ronald Blocker said it wouldn't be an ideal situation to repurpose teachers, but the county will work hard to maintain stability in each district.
He said payment for the class-size reduction measures is the responsibility of the state, not the school districts, and since the Legislature has failed to adequately fund the amendment, the School Board had to raise taxes. Operating costs to meet the requirements are $16.2 billion and capital costs are $2.5 billion.
Aside from filling the gap for the class reduction mandate, the expected $22 million raised by the increase should keep the county from making teacher layoffs. This was Board member Rick Roach's motivating factor for his vote.
"This is the money we are going to need to make class-size reduction work," Roach said. "I want principals to have more flexibility in how they can handle this."