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Moving? School options may, too

No matter where or why, moving takes away a student's right to stay in the same school zone under the Pinellas plan.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


SEMINOLE -- For a time, the house in Seminole was perfect: two stories, 2,900 square feet, enough bedrooms for mom, dad, daughter and grandmother. Even more important: It put 9-year-old Amy DeLorenzo on track to attend Bauder Elementary, Seminole Middle and Seminole High schools.

This summer, Amy's grandmother broke her hip and was diagnosed with a nerve disease. With Gerda Walsch using a walker and unable to navigate stairs, a one-story house is now more practical.

But if Amy's family moves -- for whatever reason or even a mile away -- the fourth-grader will lose her right under the Pinellas school district's choice plan to continue to her zoned middle and high schools, both of which have reputations as being of good quality.

The right to stay in zoned schools, known as "extended grandfathering," seemed like a gift to thousands of parents when School Board members approved it in October 2000. It provided the stability parents demanded so they could avoid choice when it begins in fall 2003.

Now, though, real life is colliding with the School Board's rigid rules. Parents, including Jacqueline DeLorenzo, are telling their stories. They're asking board members to be more flexible. The Pinellas Realtor Organization also is calling for changes, worried about choice's impact on the local economy.

"There are things that happen in life over which you have no control," Mrs. DeLorenzo said. "I'm not asking for anything that she doesn't have already."

School Board members are sympathetic to the DeLorenzos and other families with hardships. They have discussed expanding the role of a choice appeals committee to review such special cases, but they haven't committed to making changes or creating exceptions to the one-size-fits-all rules.

"We can't change the policy every time we hear from parents," School Board chairman Lee Benjamin said. "There may be some individual situations that merit looking at with an appeal. But overall, we have to follow the policies."

An attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said Friday that it would be "most disturbing" for the board to consider changing its policies. The board and the Legal Defense Fund negotiated details of the choice plan as part of a settlement to end court-ordered busing for desegregation.

"That would promote and reinforce a belief that the School Board lives up to its word only when it is convenient or when it wants to do so," Enrique Escarraz wrote in a letter to School Board attorney John Bowen.

Extended grandfathering always has been the most controversial aspect of the choice plan.

It was born in 2000 after a series of emotional public hearings about choice in which parents repeated the same phrases: We already made our choice; we bought our house so our kids could go to a particular school. The rule was crafted around their plea.

Board members agreed first on "traditional grandfathering," which allows a student to remain in a school through the highest grade offered. The student must stay in his or her school's attendance area to be eligible.

Extended grandfathering does much more. It allows students to skip the choice plan. If a student was enrolled in Pinellas schools on June 6, 2001, and continued to live at the same address, he or she could attend his or her zoned elementary, middle and high schools. But if the student moved, he or she would lose that privilege and have to participate in the choice plan.

At the time, some parents and real estate agents complained that families would be on house arrest. The Legal Defense Fund initially opposed it, too, saying it maintained the status quo. The fund also argued that it wouldn't benefit African-American children who don't have clear school tracks near home because they have borne the brunt of busing for desegregation for 30 years.

Ultimately, extended grandfathering supporters were loudest and won. And in the end, the Legal Defense Fund reluctantly agreed to the rule. But Superintendent Howard Hinesley still thought it wise to ease the district into choice, possibly building community support for it along the way.

Two years later, choice is still widely disliked, and thousands of students already have lost their extended grandfathering rights. About 46,000 students in the 112,000-student district retain the privilege.

Why has the number dropped? Students have graduated and moved out of the district, dropped out or taken special attendance permits.

And about 13,000 students lost it because they have moved since June 2001. Some moved willingly, knowing full well that they would have to take part in the choice plan. Circumstances forced others to relocate.

Some families have moved out of poorly maintained rental properties. A sinkhole opened under a house, making rebuilding impossible. Parents with two kids thought their house was big enough until they got pregnant with twins.

Frank Eisel has two sons in college and one daughter still at home. He's working two jobs to stay in the four-bedroom, three-bath house he owns in Palm Harbor. He is ready to downsize but doesn't want his 12-year-old daughter, Kristen, to lose her right to attend Palm Harbor University High School, where her brothers went.

"My only option is to relocate to Pasco County where I know where she would go to school," Eisel said. "I feel held hostage."

Although Hinesley acknowledges that these are difficult situations, he doesn't think the board should address them piecemeal. Rather, he thinks the board should let choice begin, compile a list of problem areas and review them together.

"I don't disagree that there will be a time to make changes," he said. "But we don't even know whether this works or doesn't work."

School Board member Linda Lerner said she at least wants to discuss the issue with Escarraz, but he doesn't appear interested.

In his letter to Bowen, Escarraz said it should have been clear to the board two years ago that some people with valid reasons for moving would lose extended grandfathering rights.

He predicted that creating exceptions to extended grandfathering would only create more complicated rules and raise a difficult question: What is a valid reason for moving?

"This kind of administrative nightmare was one of the reasons to not consider extended grandfathering two years ago and remains a reason to eliminate extended grandfathering today," he wrote. "However, we made an agreement two years ago to allow a limited and restricted extended grandfathering clause without further opposition. We will live up to our word so long as the School Board lives up to its word."

The Realtors, for their part, think that the board should keep extended grandfathering but make it more flexible. They said that although they haven't seen a drop in housing sales yet, they fear it's coming. They worry it will drive students out of public schools and into private or homeschools.

They want the board to change the rules to allow a family to move to a new house within the same school zone and retain the extended grandfathering privilege.

"I'm very fearful of the fact that people are virtually locked into their homes," said Nikki Ubaldini, broker at Keller Williams Realty, which requires buyers to sign forms indicating that they understand Pinellas has school choice, not neighborhood schools. "When there is not a demand for properties, what happens to values? What's going to happen to the economy in this area?"

The change the Realtors propose would help the DeLorenzos.

They have a contract on a one-story house a couple miles away that's in the same school zone. So Amy will be able to stay at Bauder Elementary through fifth grade, but unless the School Board changes its extended grandfathering policy, the DeLorenzos will have to participate in choice to find Amy a middle school and a high school.

They could put Seminole Middle as their first choice, but Amy wouldn't have the guaranteed seat she has now.

Still, they'll move later this year anyway. They don't think they have a choice.

"We're going to move on and do what we have to do for the family," Mrs. DeLorenzo said. "But it kind of dampens the whole thing with moving."

What is traditional grandfathering?

Traditional grandfathering allows students to remain in a school through the highest grade offered there. They must continue to live in the school's attendance area to be eligible.

What is extended grandfathering?

Extended grandfathering allows students to stay on track to attend the elementary, middle and high school they were zoned to attend as of June 6, 2001. Students lose extended grandfathering if they have moved since June 6, 2001,. They also lose extended grandfathering if they leave or have left the public school district.

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