JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Some parents protested Floyd Elementary School's new policy, but it will still take effect on Monday.
SPRING HILL - Tempers are flaring over the afternoon pickup time at Hernando County's biggest elementary school.
And it's not because of the nearly 90-minute wait, the traffic jam that flows into the neighborhood streets or the limited number of parking spaces on the Floyd Elementary School campus.
Rather, the mood has soured over new principal Marcia Austin's decision to change the rules that parents have followed for years when picking up their children after the final bell rings.
Citing safety concerns and state law, Austin announced Thursday that the school no longer will release students to parents without proper identification. Parents can continue to pull up in their vehicles and pick up students, but they no longer may park - on or off campus - and then wade through the busy parking lot to pick up their children. Parents and children will be given matching cards to help with identification, Austin said.
"At this time, anyone can enter the pickup and bus area to get a child," Austin wrote in a letter to parents. "In addition, we have children escorted by parents to parked cars walking through traffic. This cannot continue if we are to keep your child safe."
Parents accustomed to the old ways have hurled invectives at Austin and have complained to the district office. She held an emergency meeting of the school advisory council early Friday to fend off a revolt.
"All I'm asking is that the parents cooperate with us in that we deliver the children safely," Austin told the 15 members of the school leadership team. "That's not happening."
Some members immediately resisted.
"Has there ever been a problem in the last four years with the old system?" asked Allison Waskowitz, who drives her two children to Floyd.
"What happens when you have kids waiting 45 minutes in the hot sun (for their parents) and then pass out?" chimed in Steve DelGatto, who also has two children at the school.
They said change without warning - new rules take effect Monday - often breeds anger.
Others countered that improved security on campus should be of paramount concern.
Cheryl Gillis, who has one daughter at Floyd, backed Austin's move to make sure kids get to their parents and are not taken by someone else.
"You're right," she told Austin. "The first time it happens, you're on the line. My kid disappears, I'm going to be a hot tomato. Give the kids IDs. Fine. I'm not having my daughter disappear off the property."
Michael Ekstrom, who has two children at Floyd, said he saw someone almost get hit by a car while walking through the lot during pickup.
"All of us need to look at it from everybody's individual needs and the school's perspective," Ekstrom said. "The most critical thing is the safety of our kids and ourselves. Walking across that parking lot is not a safe thing."
As the 90-minute discussion wore on, the parents came to accept that the potential problem that Austin identified was real.
For the short term, they agreed to try the matching card system and to bar parents from walking through the moving traffic with their children. They also planned to investigate whether the situation might be alleviated by switching the bus and car pickup areas, and by having buses leave the campus before cars are allowed into the parking lot.
They also talked about how they might get parents to arrive for pickup closer to release time.
Longer range, though, the council focused on what really needs to be done to fix the problem.
"We need a second exit," Austin said.
"Why isn't anyone doing anything about it?" asked Maria Laskoski, whose daughter is a fifth-grader.
School Board efforts to obtain land for a second exit repeatedly have failed. Citing a need for public safety, board members have discussed using their condemnation powers to take the property needed to expand access to the school.
The fire marshal recently told Austin that backups at the end of the day make it impossible for emergency vehicles to get to the school quickly.
"We've been trying to get a different entrance out there for years," said board vice chairwoman Sandra Nicholson, who did not attend Friday's meeting. "It's always been bad out there."
She said parents should back Austin.
"My No. 1 concern is the safety of the students," Nicholson said. "If that inconveniences people until they get things straightened out, I'm sorry."
The advisory council decided to pursue a quick fix and also to press the School Board to work more aggressively toward another entrance on the campus. They plan to meet again in a week to talk further.
Austin said she planned to send another round of letters home to every family at the school explaining her actions.
- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 or firstname.lastname@example.org