Board going to wire with school plan

A self-imposed Aug. 23 deadline looms as leaders gather today.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 14, 2007

If this were a test in geography class, the Pinellas School Board might be headed for an all-night cramming session.

Only 10 days remain before board members have said they will finish the final draft of a plan to redesign the system and change the way students are assigned to schools.

Whether they meet that self-imposed deadline of Aug. 23 could depend on how fast they work today at a three-hour workshop. Board members will consider whether they favor a proposal by superintendent Clayton Wilcox to expand the number of fundamental schools in the district.

If they do, a number of other decisions line up like dominoes. Among them: whether fundamental schools would continue the long-standing practice of drawing students from across the county, whether children in existing fundamental schools would have to move to a fundamental school in their area, and whether to close Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and merge it with nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle.

"I would be real pleased if we got that far," board member Carol Cook said.

If there is time, the board will tackle related questions on magnet schools and how the assignment plan would work when it comes to high schools.

Last week, Wilcox changed his original plan to divide 16 high schools across two attendance areas. He now proposes seven high school attendance areas, with most areas offering two schools.

By drawing the areas more tightly, the district hoped to reduce busing costs and give families more predictable paths from elementary to middle to high school. But the new configuration also appears to offer families fewer choices, after years of allowing them to apply for any high school in the county.

"We haven't talked about high schools at all," Cook said.

District officials expect a large crowd of parents from fundamentals -- the back-to-basics schools that mandate parent involvement, require nightly homework and stronger dress codes and have little tolerance for behavior problems.

In addition to the Southside-Marshall merger, Wilcox has proposed turning four schools into new fundamental elementaries and making Kennedy Middle in Clearwater into a fundamental middle school.

The change would grow the district's fundamental enrollment from the current 3,700 students to about 6,000 by the 2008-09 school year. Total enrollment for the district is projected at about 107,000 students.

Under the proposal, the district would be divided into eight attendance areas for elementary schools. Each school would be surrounded by a zone from which it would draw students.

Each attendance area would have a fundamental school as a way to offer families an option besides their zone or "home" school.

Administrators say the proposal contemplates allowing students in existing fundamentals to remain in their school - even if that school is outside their area.

But at least one board member, Jane Gallucci, doesn't like that idea, saying it differs from how the district might handle a similar situation at regular schools.

The board is mulling a proposal to deal with the thousands of instances in which students will find themselves in a school that is not their new zone school. The idea -- yet to be approved -- is to make this year's kindergarteners and first- and second-graders move to their new zone schools in 2008-09.

What's good for them is good for fundamental students, Gallucci said. "At this point, I haven't seen it as different. ... A program's a program."

Cook said the situation had her strongly considering another option: "grandfather" all students into their current schools, fundamental or not.

The board's only other scheduled workshop after today is Aug. 23, the day of the deadline.

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

Fast Facts:

What's next

The Pinellas School Board's workshop is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW, Largo. The public may attend, but there is no opportunity for public comment. The meeting also will be broadcast live on the Web site for the district's television station, WPDS-TV, Ch. 14. To view it, click on http://www.wpds.tv/, then click on the "Watch WPDS Online" link at the bottom left of the page. The workshop will be rebroadcast on Channel 14 at 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.