Wilcox's hard choices

Published July 13, 2007

The case Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox makes for closing several underutilized schools is compelling, but that doesn't make his task necessarily easy. The parents and teachers who will resist his efforts are, in many cases, the same ones whose passion for their school is a major ingredient in its success. Yet keeping all schools open at a time of declining enrollment is a financial luxury the district can't really afford.

The timing is certainly right, given that the district is redrawing attendance zones and needs to be able to match capacity with available students throughout the county. Also, the numbers are irrefutable. The district's enrollment has dipped by nearly 6,000 in the past four years, and the state Department of Education projects a drop of another 4,000 by 2010. To put that loss in perspective, it is more than the total enrollment in each of the state's 29 smallest school districts.

That said, there is no simple way to approach this job, especially given the raw emotions that surround a potential closing. On Monday, Wilcox released a list of 10 schools he considers prime candidates (Riviera Middle and Anona, Clearview Avenue, Gulf Beaches, Largo Central, North Ward, Orange Grove, Rio Vista, San Jose and South Ward elementaries). Not all those schools will be closed, which means some of the campuses will be treated to unnecessary upheaval. But the alternative, which is to hide the names until a final list is announced, is worse. In this process, more openness is better than less.

Wilcox and the School Board will be narrowing the list over the next few months, and Nancy Bostock, a board member with children in Pinellas schools, brings a healthy dose of empathy to the table. "Shutting down a building is simple," she says, "but schools are not just buildings. They're communities, and we have to respect that."

Bostock is right, and therein lies the tension the board will face. Some of the parents at affected schools will cry foul and argue for leaving their school alone. Yet the district can save roughly $500,000 in overhead for every elementary school it closes, money that would go directly into classroom instruction. This won't be easy, but the board can follow their superintendent's lead.