Pinellas to close 4 schools next year
But a new assignment plan for students isn't ready for the public.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published August 10, 2007
The Pinellas School Board tentatively agreed Thursday to close four schools but ended a long discussion on its new student assignment plan with many decisions still to be made and little time to make them.
"This plan is very dynamic in its nature. It is still evolving," superintendent Clayton Wilcox said at the start of a 3 1/2-hour workshop - a statement that remained true by day's end. The board has said it will have a fully developed plan ready for public comment by Aug. 23.
Thursday's format allowed no formal votes, but head nods and comments told the story: The board agreed with Wilcox's proposal to close Clearview Avenue, Largo Central and South Ward elementary schools and Riviera Middle School in 2008-09.
But members delayed any decision on a proposal to close Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and merge it with nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle. At the suggestion of board member Nancy Bostock, who has two children in fundamental schools, the board will hold a special workshop Tuesday on how fundamental and magnet schools would fit into the new plan.
Bostock noted that Southside draws students from throughout the county while Marshall draws from the southern tip of Pinellas.
"We need to make sure they fit together," she said, also expressing concerns about closing Southside when Wilcox proposes turning some elementary schools into fundamentals.
Key question lingers
According to enrollment figures, the three existing fundamental elementaries in south Pinellas - plus a proposed new fundamental at Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg - would generate a sixth-grade class of about 220 students each year. Last year's sixth-grade classes at Southside and Marshall were nearly equal at about 215 apiece.
Bostock also said she wanted more discussion on an earlier proposal to reconstitute Southside at Riviera.
Among the other topics set for the new workshop: whether to limit enrollment at fundamentals to students in an attendance area or open them up to students countywide, and whether high school students could attend a school outside their attendance area.
The plan would divide the district into eight attendance areas for elementary schools, six for middle schools and seven for high schools. Each school would have a zone from which it would draw its students.
If a school did have enough room for all students in its zone, some would be assigned to the next closest school with space.
A key question still to be resolved is how to determine which students get into a zone school with too few seats?
Staying or going
Also Thursday, board members remained stalled on perhaps the biggest issue before them: whether students who are not in their new zone schools would be allowed to stay in their current school.
Because of the choice plan, which urged families to try schools outside their neighborhoods, thousands of students are in a school other than the one they would be zoned for in 2008-09.
Wilcox has proposed "grandfathering" most students into their current schools in 2008-09 - those in high school as of Aug. 21, and those starting sixth, seventh, third and fourth grades. This year's kindergarteners and first- and second-graders would have to move to their new zoned school.
Allowing more to remain in their current schools would delay the transition and reduce the savings on busing.
For families who wanted to keep younger and older siblings together, older children could go to the zone school.
Board members reached no consensus. Some wanted more grandfathering and some less.
Board Chairman Mary Brown suggested this year's second graders also be allowed to stay in their current schools.
Board members Janet Clark and Jane Gallucci said their children switched schools years ago with no ill effects.
"We are discounting the resilience of our kids if we move them from one good school to another good school," Clark said.
The discussion over closing schools centered on cost savings to the district at a time of dwindling enrollment. But in the case of Largo Central Elementary, administrators argued they needed the school's 4.8 acres to make way for a new Largo High.
The current site, even with newly acquired land, does not meet state guidelines for that size school, they said.
Gallucci said she made the decision with "a heavy heart having to close any school."
In other discussion, district official Jim Madden cautioned parents who read the district's new maps showing boundaries for each school zone. The lines are based on last year's enrollment figures and could change, he said. "If there's anybody in the audience who's zeroing in on Google Earth to see what school zone they will be in, you can stop right now."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8923.