Florida's School-Crowding Woes Offer Fodder for Ongoing Debate

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Press Floridians to put a price tag on the school crowding problem in their state, and they'll sigh heavily and say it depends.

That's because Florida's governor, the state education commissioner, state lawmakers, and school groups are brandishing figures that are billions of dollars apart, and state officials' assessments of classroom crowding range from schools having ample classroom space to an $11.1 billion construction backlog.

This despite a long summer of well-publicized meetings led by Gov. Lawton Chiles intended not only to reconcile those billion-dollar differences, but also to come up with a long-term solution to the state's crowding problem.

Fueling the arguments is a new law requiring districts to count 75 percent of their portable classrooms and all music rooms, art rooms, and computer labs as permanent, regular classroom space.

The law, known as House Bill 2121, was passed on the last day of the legislative session last May. It eliminated much of the state's need for new schools, at least on paper. It could shrink the total dollar estimate of school construction needs as low as $775 million. Details of the law's implementation are still being ironed out, and likely will be made final during a special legislative session expected to be held before Thanksgiving.

'Other People's Money'

Sponsors of the measure, which also limits the size of new classrooms that districts build, said its intention is to curb wasteful spending on school construction.

"It's always a question of more money--other people's money. It's time for schools to be frugal and functional," said Rep. Stephen R. Wise, a Republican who chairs a key education committee. "Somehow, educational professionals have said you can't learn in portable classrooms. Well, I know a lot of doctors, lawyers, and scientists who were schooled in portables."

But since its passage, the law has been blasted by the Democratic governor and school officials.

"The bill is an attempt to hide the problem," said Gary Landry, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association United, the state's second-largest teachers' union and an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, which assesses the state's total school construction needs at $3.5 billion. "Everyone's doing a lot of denying and finger-pointing, but the bottom line is, we've got overcrowding."

However big a problem, the crowding itself stems from the more than 600,000 students who have poured into the state's schools over the past 10 years. But an end may be in sight, as the number of students enrolling in public schools in Florida is expected to begin slowing down by 2002, according to the state education department. The projected slowdown is one of the reasons many lawmakers want to tame school construction spending.

Not a Permanent Classroom

Critics say the new law fails to take into account how portable classrooms can impede learning and strain core school facilities such as libraries, cafeterias, and bathrooms.

"Portables were never intended to be permanent," said Dewitt Lewis, the principal of the 250-student Waldo Community School in Alachua County, where about one-third of the students attend classes in the school's seven portable classrooms.

Mr. Lewis said the students who spend their school days in portables lack the same access to technology as their peers in the main school building, get wet moving to the lunchroom or library on rainy days, and are displaced during bouts of severe weather.

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