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Fla. Considers Bill To Allow Breakup of Big Districts

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As enrollments in many of Florida's largest school districts continue to balloon, state legislators are considering a bill that would allow the state's big county-based systems to break up into smaller districts.

The bill, which cleared the House education committee last month, would amend the Florida Constitution to allow smaller school systems, rather than the countywide districts that have been in place for nearly 50 years. Similar legislation failed last year, but sponsors of the current bill, such as Rep. Ron Klein, say they may now have the momentum to win passage.

"There's just a general recognition that the structure of the large school system makes it difficult to effectively administer," Mr. Klein, who represents Palm Beach County, said last week.

State education officials said that from 1991 to last year, public school enrollment in the state surged nearly 13 percent, from 1.9 million to 2.2 million students. The biggest numbers of new enrollees were immigrants from island nations near south Florida, the officials said.

Michael Krop, a school board member in Dade County--the largest school district in the state and the 4th-largest in the country with more than 300,000 students--said the state's huge, growing school systems are becoming harder to manage.

Dade Considers Impact

Last month, the Dade County school board voted to evaluate the impact of dividing the system into smaller districts.

"We are projected to have 500,000 students in 2013--that's an elephantine size," Mr. Krop said.

"It may be OK for a city or an industry, but not for an organization which has to be able to touch the hand of every child," Mr. Krop added.

Under the bill now under consideration, only districts with more than 50,000 students could break into smaller units.

A commission made up of community groups, parents, and teachers would be formed to redraw the boundaries of districts that wanted to be restructured. Each new district would have to have at least 15,000 students.

If approved by lawmakers, the measure would face the voters in a referendum in November before it could become law.

More Bureaucracy?

Florida's county-based district structure has been in place since 1947, when a governor's commission called for centralized education systems to connect the many disparate farming communities on sprawling tracts of land. Since that time, many of the state's 67 school districts have grown into the some of the largest in the nation. (See chart, this page.)

But carving up districts is not the answer to creating a more accountable and efficient education system, state teachers' union officials say.

Subdividing the existing districts would create more bureaucracy, more school boards, and more superintendents, said John Ryor, the executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession, the 60,000-member state affiliate of the National Education Association.

"Just to divide up a county system so you have six instead of one school district makes no sense unless you are willing to create smaller, more manageable schools," Mr. Ryor said.

If legislators want to improve education, he said, they should propose building additional schools as a way to shrink class sizes.

Frederica Wilson, a Dade County school board member, also said she objects to the bill. She said it could end up dividing districts along economic and racial lines.

"It would create divisions, and poor neighborhoods would be robbed of the wealthier neighborhood's resources," Ms. Wilson said. "And we'd be back into segregated school districts."

But Rep. Klein said districts that chose to divide themselves would not be at risk of losing funds.

Under the bill, each county would continue to draw property taxes from all its residents, and education money would then be disbursed to each school district within the county on a per-capita basis.

Mr. Klein added that, because the legislation calls for a circuit court to approve each new district, it is unlikely that a judge would authorize the creation of a district drawn along racial or ethnic lines.

Still, Ms. Wilson and other critics also point out that large districts often reap the benefits of millions of dollars in federal grants for teacher training and equipment, among other things.

But some local board members say parents find such large county systems unwieldy.

Smaller units, they say, would encourage more participation and community involvement in the schools.

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