tampabay.com

Which schools to close?

The board wants recommendations from Wilcox as part of the push to reorganize.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published June 22, 2007


The Pinellas School Board on Thursday authorized superintendent Clayton Wilcox to start choosing schools he would close as part of a push to reorganize the system.

The board and Wilcox also seemed to agree that an overhaul of the district's student assignment system should be phased in starting in the 2008-09 school year.

Wilcox will return to the board next month with a list of recommended closures, a move prompted by enrollment declines that are expected to continue for years. He said the likely candidates would be schools that are older, have low enrollment or lie in flood-prone areas of the county.

"I think we need to be financially prudent in the district," board member Jane Gallucci said. "It's time to take the bull by the horns. Some of these buildings are costing us an enormous amount of money that could be put into other things."

Each elementary closed, for instance, would save the district $500,000 on average, Wilcox said.

The district has seen enrollment decline for three years and expects another drop when classes resume Aug. 21. By 2010, the state projects Pinellas will be down to 102,801 students -- a drop of nearly 10,000 from the high of 112,520 in 2003-04.

With lost enrollment comes less money from the state.

Wilcox said he would recommend closing "a small number" of schools and would craft a plan to make sure the unused buildings didn't become eyesores.

As for the new student assignment system, Wilcox said the changes would not be made overnight.

The key question for board members -- and for thousands of families -- is how quickly the district moves from a choice system, where students are spread out in schools across the county, to a system of zoned schools that would keep most students close to home.

The faster the change, the more students will be uprooted from their current choice schools.

Does the district go with a "soft roll-out," as Wilcox called it? And, if so, how soft? Or does it go with a clean but painful break from the past -- what board member Nancy Bostock dubbed the "rip-the-bandage" approach?

Board members said Thursday they were conflicted on that point and needed more time, more facts and more input from the public.

"My gut tells me to do it slowly and softly," Bostock said, echoing other board members. "At the same time, there are so many benefits to just doing it. ... It's a lot to think about."

Among the benefits to moving faster: delivering on the system of zoned schools the public has said it wants, plus a quicker return on the millions officials hope to save in busing costs.

Without those savings, the district would be hard-pressed to pay for some other elements of the plan, including more magnet and fundamental programs.

The downside of moving fast: the specter of ripping children, sometimes whole families, from schools they chose and have grown comfortable in.

Under a proposal outlined by Wilcox, the school choice plan would be replaced by a system that would allow every family to attend a school "close" to home or at least within their new "attendance area."

The district would be divided into eight attendance areas for elementary schools, four for middle schools and two for high schools.

Each area would contain a number of schools, each surrounded by a zone with boundaries based on enrollment trends. The vast majority of students would be assigned to the school in their zone.

In cases where that school did not have enough seats -- often when a family moves in from another district -- students would be assigned to the next closest school in that attendance area with available space.

Each attendance area would have other offerings as well, including magnet, fundamental and charter schools. The fundamental schools would take children from within the attendance area. The magnets would draw from throughout the county.

The trick is how to transition to the new system after four years of the choice plan.

Elementary students are fairly spread out. Roughly 70 percent do not go to schools in what would be their new zone. The district has yet to get similar numbers for middle and high schools.

Wilcox offered several ideas Thursday on how to phase in the new plan. One would allow students who enter fourth and fifth grades in 2008-09 to finish out at their current choice schools. Younger children not in their zoned school would be required to move.

If families wanted to keep children together in the same school -- say, a first- and fifth-grader -- a "reverse family preference" would kick in. The fifth-grader would be allowed to move to the new school with his younger sibling.

In middle school, students scheduled to enter seventh and eighth grades in 2008-09 would be allowed to stay at their existing schools.

Wilcox said he strongly believed that high school students should be exempt from any moves. That means students entering ninth grade this fall would not be forced to move if they weren't in their new zoned school.

Board members seemed to favor this approach but gave Wilcox no firm direction.

"I think it's fair to say there's a lot of conversation," Wilcox said later. "They want a soft roll-out, but how soft is up in the air."

Gallucci said she liked the soft approach but added she didn't want to "go gray" waiting for a complete transition.

For families who would have to change schools, Wilcox said the pain would be lessened since the district would keep most neighborhood kids together.

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.