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    Mail policy stirs confusion over school intent forms

    By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 27, 2002

    Editor's note: As an aid to understanding "controlled choice," Neighborhood Times will continue to profile families who are in the hunt for the right school during the next several weeks.

    * * *

    Roberta Houghton had been watching her mailbox for weeks.

    She knew the school district had sent out more than 103,000 declaration of intent forms in early September for parents whose children are already in a public school. As the title suggests, the form allows those parents to declare their intent for schools under the "controlled choice" plan that begins next fall. (That's for students in the system now. Students planning to enter a public school in 2003 need to fill out a choice application before Dec. 13.)

    She and her husband, Brian, were eager to fill out the paperwork so their 8-year-old son, Christopher, can stay at Plumb Elementary next year.

    She became concerned when she heard that other parents in their gated Clearwater community, including their next-door neighbor, had received the form.

    "I chased my poor mailman down," Mrs. Houghton said. "He told me he had delivered quite a few in the neighborhood. He said, "I'll keep my eye out. If I can catch it and hand-deliver it to you, I will.' "

    Worried they would lose their chance to choose, Mrs. Houghton visited a Family Education and Information Center a few days later. A volunteer confirmed what she already suspected: The district did not deliver declaration of intent forms to post office boxes.

    The Houghtons, who operate an electrical contracting business from their home, have used a post office box for their mailing address for a about a year and a half. Their mail carrier had suggested it because there had been reports of mail theft in their neighborhood. They got used to the arrangement and never had their mail rerouted to their home.

    It was never a problem until they decided to move Christopher from a private school to Plumb Elementary last year.

    "It was an issue when we signed up," Mrs. Houghton said. "They wanted to make sure we were residing where we said we were."

    In late September, she followed the suggestion of the information center volunteer and went to the school. An administrator gave her a modified declaration of intent form, which she completed and left for the administrator to send to the district.

    Because her journey through the choice system got off to a rocky start, she now worries about things she probably wouldn't have thought of before. Has she missed other mail from the district? What if the form she filled out at the school gets lost in the mail before it gets to the choice office?

    She thought about filling out a change of address form at the post office specifying her street address. But then she worried that it would appear to the district that she has recently moved, which would cost Christopher his grandfathered status at Plumb.

    Mrs. Houghton has nothing to worry about, said Kathy Walker, director of student assignment. Declaration of intent forms are the only communication the district will not send to a post office box. The reason, Walker said, is because the majority of the survey forms sent to post office boxes in the spring of 2000 were returned. The district wanted to avoid that with declaration of intent forms, so its computers were programmed to recognize street addresses only.

    Even with the district's assurance that things should go smoothly from here, Mrs. Houghton still worries, especially for the families who have not yet returned their declarations. She suspects that many of the 30,000 forms that are still out may not have been received.

    "They wouldn't have gotten one if they have a post office box like we do," she said. "You can't send a form back if you never receive one in the first place."

    -- Do you have a story about negotiating the new school choice plan? Please let Donna Winchester know at 893-8826; fax 893-8675; e-mail winchester@sptimes.com; or P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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