Confused about changes to Pinellas schools?

A dramatic shift lies ahead for the district as it considers a new student assignment plan.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 9, 2007

Today begins an intensive, three-month process that will end in November with a dramatic change for Pinellas County schools. The School Board meets in a workshop to consider superintendent Clayton Wilcox's proposal for a new student assignment plan. Here are some questions and answers to bring you up to speed.

What would the proposed new plan do?
It would change the way Pinellas students are assigned to schools and slightly reduce the number of schools to address enrollment concerns. The proposal divides the district into eight "attendance areas" for elementary schools, six for middle schools and seven for high schools. Every school would be surrounded by a zone, and students would be assigned to the school in the zone where they live. If a school doesn't have enough room for all students in its zone, some would be assigned to the next closest school with space. Students could attend their zone school or apply for a seat in a magnet, fundamental or charter school. The district would increase the number of fundamental schools so that every elementary attendance area would have at least one. The number of magnet schools open to students countywide also would increase. Zones would be structured to make it easier for families to predict which schools their children would attend from kindergarten to high school. Five schools would be closed: Clearview Avenue, Largo Central and South Ward elementaries, and two St. Petersburg middle schools - Riviera and Southside Fundamental.

When will the new plan take effect?
Early next year, when the district starts assigning students for the 2008-09 school year.

There's a lot to digest here. What should I be focusing on?
Most families will want to know which school zones they live in. For color maps showing the proposed zones, go to education.tampabay.com.

We just got used to the choice plan. Why is the school district changing its system again?
It all goes back to the lawsuit filed in 1964 by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which claimed that Pinellas schools gave black students an inferior education. The lawsuit led to three decades of busing. The choice plan was part of a settlement designed to ease the district away from busing. Under the settlement, a "controlled choice" system was in place from 2003 to 2007, encouraging families to choose schools outside their neighborhoods while using ratios to keep schools racially balanced. The 2007-08 school year was a transition period in which the race ratios would expire while the choice system remained in place. The settlement contemplated that the district would craft a new system for the 2008-09 school year.

Will the new plan still try to keep schools racially integrated?
So far, the district has spent little time discussing ways to keep schools racially integrated in the future. Under the latest version of the plan, Gibbs and Lakewood high schools would be mostly black. A major factor is the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently limited what districts can do to achieve integrated schools. The ruling prohibits schools from sorting children based on race, but suggests that other integration methods might be allowed.

Will the bus system change?
Yes, but the details are unclear for now. The district expects to save $5-million to $8-million. Having fewer schools and more tightly drawn attendance areas means fewer kids would need a bus ride, and the routes would be shorter.

Why is the district closing schools as part of this plan?
Enrollment is down and is projected to sink lower. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says the situation is increasing the district's overhead costs. Enrollment in Pinellas public schools hit an all-time high of 112,333 in 2001, but the numbers have been slipping since then. The district expects about 106,700 students to show up when school starts later this month. The state projects that Pinellas will be a district of 102,800 students by 2010.

Where would the district put all those students whose schools have been closed?
The students would be absorbed into other schools, but many of the details have not been released. Students at Southside Fundamental Middle School would be moved to nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle.

Won't the closings mean layoffs for district employees?
Officials and union leaders say teachers wouldn't be laid off because the district typically needs all the teachers it can get. At least 600 teachers resign or retire each year. The impact on other employees is unclear.

I've heard that some children may have to switch schools. How will that work?
In addition to moving students from closed schools, there would be thousands of instances in which a student's new zone school is not the school he or she currently attends. One idea is to allow this year's middle and high school students to remain in their choice schools until they finish out, but require some elementary school students to move into their new zone school.

Why can't all children just stay in the schools they were assigned to under choice?
One parent group says it is only fair to "grandfather" all students into their existing schools. District officials say that would stall the transition to a new system of neighborhood schools and delay the savings to be realized from a streamlined bus system. Allowing too many students to remain in their choice schools would be unfair to neighborhood kids who want those seats, officials say. The parent group counters, saying it would be unfair to break a promise made to families when they participated in choice - that students could stay in their assigned schools until they graduated. This is one of the key issues the School Board must address as it tackles the plan.