Lake County School Board member Marc Dodd said this week he had concerns about the district agreeing to incur a penalty for not meeting class-size enrollment caps because he did not feel comfortable with breaking the law.
“When we take the oath of office to defend the U.S. Constitution, I can’t say it is OK to break the law,” Dodd said. “I think there are some valid measures of the class-size amendments that would be circumvented by not complying, such as not having the right number of materials and having students sit in positions that are not optimal for their learning.”
Superintendent Susan Moxley previously said the district opted to incur a penalty instead of dividing a classroom with one or two students over the cap.
Under the Florida Department of Education’s October 2014 full-time equivalent student enrollment survey, 361 classes in Lake had more students than allowed by the state. After a comprehensive review of the schools, Moxley on Dec. 16 said the number now stands at 291 classes.
The schools with classes over the class-size limits include Beverly Shores Elementary, Clermont Elementary, Eustis Elementary, Sawgrass Bay Elementary, Grassy Lake Elementary, Eustis Heights Elementary, Villages Elementary, Tavares High School, Lost Lake Elementary, Umatilla Middle Schoool, East Ridge High School and Lake Minneola High School.
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By far, the school with the largest number of classes over cap is Beverly Shores Elementary. District documents show the school has 142 classes over the state cap, amounting to 23.7 full-time equivalent students. District officials are still reviewing Beverly Shores before issuing a final number.
Meanwhile, the majority of other schools listed had mainly one or two students over the class cap, according to district documents.
By Florida law, public schools are not permitted to exceed certain class-size limits: 18 students per class in grades prekindergarten through grade 3, 22 per class in grades 4 through 8 and 25 in grades 9 through 12. Schools that violate the class-size limits are subject to fines.
Fourteen districts incurred penalties during the 2013-14 school year, according to FDOE documents.
The district did not pay a fine in 2013-14, FDOE officials said, because the district conducted a self-audit and corrected its data within the appeal window. The district’s growth also was a factor in the state’s decision to not assess a penalty.
While acknowledging the penalty, Moxley said the district would look to appeal the fine because of the district’s high rate of growth. Lake grew by 500 students this year.
Several other board members disagreed with Dodd’s reasoning.
School Board member Bill Mathias asserted the district was not breaking the law.
“It comes down to the students should come first, and there is an economic component to this that can’t be ignored,” he said. “There are times it is cheaper to take a penalty than to organize a whole new class. If you can’t meet the class size, the provision is for you to accept the penalty. If you violate the speed limit you pay a penalty, but you are not going to jail.”
Board member Stephanie Luke said it is a very complicated issue, but at the same time, violating the statute is “technically breaking the law.”
“If you look at the statute on class size it is an unfunded mandate and the DOE does the projections for how many students you will have in your class and that is how much funding they will provide,” she said.
Luke believes that when the district appeals to the FDOE, the penalty will not be assessed.
Even so, Luke said it would be better for the district to get out in front of the issue.
“Whenever we start to discuss allotments for classroom teachers, we need to start to listen more to our principals,” she said. “They do have some insight into our numbers. If we have a certain school that is projecting to be (over) maybe we should be proactive as opposed to reactive in hiring an extra classroom teacher.”
The superintendent’s leadership has been called into question by several previous school board members, in part because of the class-size controversy.
The class-size controversy erupted at the beginning 2014 when a review found several schools were violating state laws governing maximum class sizes.
During a review by an outside consultant, 136 teachers said they were asked to sign reports related to class-size requirements that they knew to be inaccurate. Surveys were sent to teachers, administrators and data processing staff, the review stated. Out of 2,818 surveys, 1,518 were returned.