Florida Panel Weighs Plan To Allow Smaller Districts
Are small school districts better?
The answer to that question is being debated in Florida, where the state's Constitution Revision Commission is considering a proposal to allow Florida's largest school systems to break up into smaller ones.
The commission, a 37-member group that meets every 20 years to consider changes to the state constitution, has been holding a series of public hearings on the school plan and other proposals, including one to provide constitutional protection for affirmative action programs.
The members will decide this May whether Florida voters could change the current requirement that each of Florida's 67 counties be contiguous with a single district.
The measure would allow counties with at least 75,000 students to divide school systems into smaller districts of no fewer than 15,000 students. The proposal needs at least 22 votes from commission members to get on the November ballot.
If Florida voters approved the plan next fall, it would become part of the constitution.
A panel of residents in each county would then decide howand whetherto divvy up the districts, and voters in that county would have to approve the plan. All of which, commission members say, could take several years to hammer out.
Eight of Florida's countywide districts could be affected: Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Orange, Duval, Pinellas, and Polk, in descending order of size.
The Miami-Dade County schools, for example, with some 347,000 students, could be divided into as many as 23 districts; Broward County, which has 225,000 students, could be split into 15.
Supporters of the proposal say that smaller districts are easier to manage, more accountable, and less costly than large ones, and they say students and parents prefer them because school officials are more easily accessible.
"The smaller the management, the better," said Carlos Planas, a businessman from Miami and a commission member whose own children attended Miami-Dade schools. "Children in small school systems are better served, and parents find it easier to get informed and be involved."
But critics raise doubts about the benefits of smaller systems, saying that proponents have failed to consider the bureaucratic fallout.
And they argue that, as in other states, the new districts might effectively separate the ''haves'' from the ''have-nots.''
G. Holmes Braddock, a 36-year member and current chairman of the Miami-Dade County school board, said he "totally opposes" the idea.
"The ones who like this plan are the haves," he said. "District lines would be drawn up around assets. Students without assets and other advantages would be on one side of the line. We've seen this all over the country. It sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but it would be a disaster."
Gary Landry, a spokesman for Florida Education Association-United, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said the plan would allow for "minifiefdoms."
"It's segregation all over again. If not by race, then by wealth," he argued. He added that Florida's largest districts have worked to decentralize, setting up regional offices and choosing school board members by specific communities.
The idea of dividing up Florida school districts is not new. For three years, state Rep. Tom Warner, a Republican, and state Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat, have tried unsuccessfully to pass bills that would allow large districts to split into smaller ones.
Each lawmaker has been active in lobbying the commission on their plans.
Neither Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, nor state schools chief Frank T. Brogan, a Republican, has taken a firm position on the proposal.
Colleen Castille, a spokeswoman for Mr. Brogan, said that he was considering it, but that he would like to see an alternative that would maintain the state's countywide school finance formula, which experts commend for its equity.