Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti plans to use a more flexible interpretation of the state’s law on class size limits at schools next year.
Instead of certain “core” academic classes adhering to a flat limit on the number of students per teacher, Vitti plans to allow all district schools to function like “schools of choice,” which get to average out their class sizes by school building and still comply with Florida law.
DATABASE: Duval schools capacity levels
The change means core courses can end up with up to five more students per class than state-mandated limits.
Core courses include reading, math and science.
Florida voters approved class-size limits as an amendment to the state constitution in 2002 and reductions were phased in over time. Since the 2010-11 school year, the limits were 18 students in prekindergarten through grade 3; 22 students in grades 4 through 8, and 25 students in grades 9 through 12.
Districts going over those limits pay fines to the state. Duval, like many major districts, has paid millions in fines.
It will pay again next year, under Vitti’s proposal for the budget.
He estimates that even with greater flexibility with class sizes, the district will comply with about 90 percent of its classrooms and could pay a penalty of $1.4 million.
That would be cheaper than hiring enough teachers to meet the state’s laws, he said.
“That frees up money for us to spend on some other initiatives,” he said. “We will likely be one of the lowest in the state when it comes to compliance, but we have to be comfortable with that.”
Vitti said the move will save about $5 million and will allow Duval greater staffing flexibility, so a school won’t have to hire a new teacher the minute a class gains a new student above the state limit.
This way, he said, schools and the district can average out the sizes and ensure that there are enough teachers for elective courses, which don’t have state limits on size. This year some of those elective courses ballooned in size.
Vitti recommends that next year, academic electives have no more than 35 to 38 students per class, though other electives, such as physical education or band, may have more.
In the current school year, the district initially was going to be only 80 percent compliant, but at the last minute the district hired a lot of teachers and made schedule changes at the beginning of the school year, moving students and teachers around, to get 95 percent of its schools compliant.
It was costly, disruptive and something Vitti does not want to repeat.
Even so, several board members warned, these plans could start a storm of protests from parents. Board member Fel Lee told Vitti to expect many parent questions and comments at Thursday night’s community budget forum at Fletcher High.
“When they hear about this you’re going to have a storm on your hands,” he said.
Vitti responded: “I think we already have a storm on our hands.”
Fletcher parents have complained this year that some electives and advanced classes at the school are too full, Lee said. Some parents have asked him why some of Fletcher’s Advanced Placement classes had 35 students when Stanton’s and Paxon’s have smaller AP classes.
The same is true for other accelerated courses, such as International Baccalaureate and AICE courses.
Vitti said he doesn’t have enough money to make all those advanced courses shrink to 25 students per class, especially at big high schools with large numbers of students who need special classes, such as remedial help in reading or math. Vitti said it’s more important that those remedial classes shrink to below 35 students, so those students get more attention and can catch up to their peers in core subjects.
Besides, Vitti said, Fletcher offers more elective classes than most high schools, further exacerbating the teacher scheduling problems.
But, Lee said, some parents of advanced students will look to private schools or other schools if they’re not satisfied with class sizes.
“Thirty-eight students in an AP physics class is not going to sit well with them,” he said.
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083