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    Cost of school choice mounts

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 20, 2002

    LARGO -- Pinellas County's new choice program will cost at least $200-million for the first five years, the first price tag placed on the ambitious plan to let parents choose their children's schools in 2003.

    The estimate, based on a review of district records, includes renovated and new schools, new school buses, full-time choice workers and other operating costs.

    Some of the costs, such as the $146-million for seven new and renovated schools, have been previously reported. But a federal grant application released Monday helps paint a more complete picture of the long-term and day-to-day costs of choice.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley and other officials say the figures are open to debate.

    The agreement between the school district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, for example, required the school district to build three new schools and renovate four others. But Hinesley doesn't think all construction costs should be included because some older schools, such as Campbell Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg, eventually would have been rebuilt anyway.

    Transportation director Terry Palmer cautioned that the $20-million figure for new buses is inflated because the district would have bought about 50 new buses each year without choice.

    But other costs associated with choice aren't included in the $200-million. For example, the estimate only includes half as many bus drivers as the district will need for choice.

    The big caveat, Hinesley and others say, is that most of the cost figures are estimates. They say they won't know how much choice will cost until parents decide which schools they want their children to attend.

    "When you transition out from under a court order into a choice plan, it does have operational costs associated with it," Hinesley said. "Just like there were costs when you went into desegregation back in 1971."

    School Board member Jane Gallucci isn't surprised by the $200-million price tag. She thinks it will grow.

    "This is not all the costs," Gallucci said. "No way. It's a nice start."

    This estimate comes one week before the district mails parents a form asking them to begin making choices for fall 2003. It also comes in the midst of an election season that drew 13 candidates for four School Board seats, and some of those candidates are voicing concerns about the school district's preparations for choice.

    Mary Russell, a family literacy teacher who is running against incumbent Max Gessner, said the $200-million doesn't include "hidden costs" such as all the time district employees spend talking and worrying about choice.

    "If $200-million was going to be spent for a good outcome, if it's supposed to be increasing education for all kids, then of course it's money well spent," Russell said. "But I am not sure the whole school choice plan as it is outlined is going to help all kids in all schools."

    The five-year, $200-million estimate comes from big project costs associated with choice plus operating costs detailed in an application for a $25-million federal grant.

    Many of the big construction projects have been paid for -- $87-million of the $146-million. The operating costs, however, are ongoing.

    The grant, which was applied for Monday, would help pay for hiring and training 103 new bus drivers. The grant would also pay for the choice administrator, marketing coordinator and staffs at two Family Education and Information Centers.

    It would add bilingual specialists to the family centers, as well as four parent advocates who would roam the community offering help understanding choice. It would add an evaluation specialist who would collect data on student achievement and family satisfaction.

    It includes grants for schools that aren't chosen very often as part of the choice plan. Only six to 10 schools would benefit. Gallucci said more money should be available for all schools to develop theme programs and marketing materials.

    The grant also would pay for a Global Positioning System for 800 school buses that would enable district officials to pinpoint where buses are at any given moment. Kids would scan their thumbs over a device that would enable district officials to know where and when kids got on and off the bus.

    It also would include thousands of dollars in letters, postcards and stamps. A single, districtwide mailing can cost $180,000.

    The district expects to learn whether it got the grant at the end of next month.

    But for all the $200-million cost estimate includes, many operating costs are left out.

    The district expects to need more than 200 new bus drivers, but the grant would only pay for half that many. The balance would come out of district operating money. The estimate also excludes bus fuel and maintaining the new buses.

    And it doesn't include the salaries of dozens of district employees who spent part of their time devoted to choice tasks.

    School Board members Linda Lerner and Nancy Bostock said they wouldn't include so many items in a total price tag. They would include choice administrators and bus drivers. But the new buildings, improved communication with parents and school improvement efforts, they said, would have happened without choice.

    But probably not so fast.

    "The new schools and the attractors, I think those are things the district would be doing in one way or another," Lerner said. "It has not been easy to get a handle on this, really."

    District officials have resisted assigning a particular price tag to choice since the debate began several years ago.

    Why?

    They could predict school construction costs, but they said they could not accurately predict operating costs until they know what choices students make.

    But they knew it would be expensive.

    School officials started a rainy day fund for choice, and it holds $21-million. The district also received $1-million in state choice grants. The reserve fund and grant have already paid for some choice administrative costs.

    If the grant doesn't come through, Hinesley said, the district will have to seek other ways to pay for the items in the grant. Most of them have to be done no matter the funding source.

    He and grants administrator Charlie Eubanks aren't sure of the district's chances. They don't know how many applicants there are, but they know only five to seven grants will be awarded nationwide.

    While they wait, they can only do one thing. Said grant application writer Bill Lawrence: "We sweat."

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