tampabay.com

After Chocachatti vote, larger question on magnets remains

A Times Editorial
Published April 22, 2005


When Hernando County School Board members voted Tuesday to raise the enrollment at Chocachatti Elementary School to 920 students, they probably were hopeful it would bring an end to the emotion and vitriol that defined this controversial issue.

But, as board members ponder the mistakes they and their staff members made to enflame the debate, they need to acknowledge that a fundamental question still has not been answered:

What exactly is the board's policy regarding enrollment, staffing and spending at magnet schools?

Clearly, the debate about how many children could be housed in the $1.2-million, 10,000-square-foot addition to the elementary school, has raised awareness about class sizes, the specialized arts and music curriculum and even the crowded conditions at other schools.

But that heightened awareness also has led many parents and taxpayers to question whether the board intends for magnets schools to be set apart - some say above - from so-called neighborhoods schools. And, if that is the case, does the board plan to build more magnet schools or establish magnet curriculums at existing neighborhood schools? Also, will the board continue to use a weighted lottery system to enroll students, or will students' achievements play a bigger role?

The Chocachatti uproar signals to the board just how sharply divided parents and teachers are on this issue. Parents whose children have been fortunate to attend the magnet school are extremely satisfied and are protective against threats to that success. Parents whose children did not get in are disappointed and bitter, and characterize the school as inherently elitist. Parents and teachers at others school resent that magnet schools get more attention and, some allege, special treatment.

As the divisive tumult about Chocachatti subsides, board members should not delay moving on to the bigger debate about the future of magnet schools in Hernando County. With plans to build at least six schools in the next 10 years, the board has an obligation to share with taxpayers its vision about how the schools will be used.

As part of that debate, the board still needs to address overcrowding at other schools, and the possibility that attendance zones need to be redrawn to fill up the two elementary schools that are under enrollment, Brooksville and Eastside. Perhaps designating them as magnet schools would boost voluntary enrollment without rezoning other attendance zones.

As board members wrung their hands about forcing more students into Chocachatti, each expressed a commitment to the concept of magnet schools. It's time for them to agree on what that means, and to collectively communicate that objective to the public.

If they don't, they can count on residents to revive the debate every time a new magnet school opens.