Not my school, parents vow
Opponents of school closings begin organizing before the proposals appear on the board's agenda.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published July 30, 2007
Since the news in early July, it's been a summer of mood changes for Robin Ellis.
"I think it runs the gamut from very angry to very sad, to tired," she said, describing her reaction to a proposal that names Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach as one of several Pinellas schools that might close next year.
"To really put one emotion on it, I can't," she said.
Ellis and other parents say they have formed deep attachments to Gulf Beaches and its traditions, which include the annual Fish Broil, a 77-year-old event that last year raised about $20,000 for the school. It's where she attended elementary school in the 1960s and where her three sons go now.
"I can name all the principals," she said.
Ellis plans to be among a throng of parents expected at Tuesday's School Board meeting to oppose the possible closings.
A separate parent group, armed with more than 800 petition signatures, will protest a preliminary plan by superintendent Clayton Wilcox that contemplates uprooting thousands of children from their current schools during next year's transition to a new student assignment system.
Neither issue is on Tuesday's agenda, but it's the first time the board has met since details of the assignment plan were made public in mid June.
The plan would return the district to a system of neighborhood schools, starting in 2008, after five years under the choice plan and three decades of busing for desegregation.
District officials decided to explore the idea of closing schools while they were already redesigning the system. The closures, they say, could help reduce overhead as the district's overall enrollment declines.
Of the 10 schools on Wilcox's list of proposed closings, Gulf Beaches, Orange Grove Elementary and San Jose Elementary stand out with the most active opposition efforts so far.
If Orange Grove were to close, "it would break my heart," said Cindy Butler, who attended the Seminole school in her youth and now sends one of her daughters there. An older daughter went there, too.
Butler is one of the parent organizers hoping to convince the School Board it's a bad idea to close a small neighborhood school with an A grade from the state, strong community support, many active parents, a cozy atmosphere and bonds that span generations.
The Gulf Beaches contingent will make a similar argument.
One of Orange Grove's kindergarten teachers, Harry Jones, was Butler's kindergarten classmate when she went to the school. Jones later taught Butler's daughters. Her older daughter had the same fifth-grade teacher she once had.
"I understand that budgets need to be cut and I appreciate that, but my feeling as a parent is if you're involved in your child's education it does make a difference," Butler said. "And to have that end would be a shame."
At San Jose Elementary in Dunedin, a group of parents has launched a Web site and a new organization, Citizens for Schools. It's motto: "School Closings are Bad Government."
The effort goes beyond San Jose, said organizer Heather Bates. "It's about all schools in danger of being closed."
At the three schools, parents have many questions. Some wonder why the district would close schools with good performance scores. Others speculate the district wants to sell their schools' property to developers. Still others question the need for any closings when some schools appear to be overcrowded.
In fact, some schools often are at capacity and others aren't. In 2006-07, Pinellas elementaries as a group were 95 percent full with roughly 2,800 seats to spare.
The number of spare seats is expected to grow as enrollment declines. The district expects a drop of about 2 percent when school starts next month, and the state projects gradual declines in Pinellas over the next few years.
Parents at Gulf Beaches, Orange Grove and San Jose have enlisted officials in their respective cities - St. Pete Beach, Seminole and Dunedin - to lend support as they approach the School Board.
"We've just got to keep making noise," said Ellis, the Gulf Beaches parent.
School Board members, meanwhile, are asking for calm.
"The biggest thing is people are thinking we have already made decisions," said board chairwoman Mary Brown. "The superintendent is only making recommendations, and the board will be dealing with those recommendations."
Still to come: at least six public forums from August to October, plus public hearings before each of the two formal board votes on the plan. Those are scheduled for Oct. 16 and Nov. 13.
Wilcox expects to shorten the list of proposed school closings in time for the board's Aug. 9 workshop. Even then, it's uncertain which, if any, schools would be closed. The board plans to approve a "final draft" of the new assignment plan on Aug. 23. That draft will be taken to the public.
Board member Janet Clark, echoing others on the board, said she still needs to know how closing schools makes sense at a time when the district needs seats to comply with the class size amendment. "I have too many questions yet to say yes I'm for it or against it," she said.
Board members Peggy O'Shea and Carol Cook said they will need to know whether the cost savings of closing schools are real, and where students and staff would be relocated.
Board member Jane Gallucci - citing the 43-year history of legal moves that led to desegregation and choice - said she wants parents to know the district is not acting on a whim.
"I would be happy to go out and talk to everybody to tell them how we got to this point and explain every step," she said.
Members of another group, called "pinellasparentschoice," will be at Tuesday's meeting to tell the board they strongly oppose the way district officials are thinking about making the transition to the new assignment plan.
A large majority of Pinellas parents have said they want a system of neighborhood schools, but a problem arises in the transition from a choice system. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of students are in a school other than the one they would be zoned for.
Moving quickly to a new system would require uprooting thousands of children from their choice schools and placing them in their new zone schools. Moving slower would allow more students to stay in their choice schools, but they would occupy seats that might otherwise go to neighborhood kids, and the savings in busing costs in the new plan would be delayed.
The parent group says moving quickly would seriously disrupt their children's education. The board has yet to decide whether to make the transition quickly or gradually.
Pinellas school officials have listed 10 schools as potential targets for closure as they move to address enrollment declines. Officials are working to narrow the list and present it to the School Board in early August.
|School||Operating budget||Number enrolled||State grade||Year 1st opened||Location|
|Clearview Elementary||$2.4-million||452||C||1927||St. Petersburg|
|Gulf Beaches Elem.||$2.1-million||366||B||1950||St. Petersburg|
|Largo Central Elem.||$2.3-million||416||A||1963||Largo|
|North Ward Elem.||$1.5-million||281||A||1915||Clearwater|
|Orange Grove Elem.||$2.1-million||383||A||1961||Seminole|
|Rio Vista Elementary||$2.4-million||415||A||1925||St. Petersburg|
|San Jose Elementary||$2.9-million||478||A||1958||Dunedin|
|South Ward Elem.||$1.7-million||297||D||1883||Clearwater|
|Riviera Middle||$5-million||945||C||1965||St. Petersburg|
|Note: Data reflects figures from the 2006-07 school year|
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923.