Board leans toward slow transition

A gradual move to neighborhood schools would cut into savings.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

LARGO -- The Pinellas School Board tentatively decided Thursday that the transition to a system of neighborhood schools should occur gradually and without the mass uprooting of children the district once contemplated.

The board agreed that all students currently in a Pinellas public school will be allowed to remain in that school when the district's new student assignment plan launches a year from now.

Students who are new to the district and those entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade in the 2008-09 academic year would be required to follow the rules of the new plan, which will steer most students to a school close to their home.

Previously, the district proposed forcing an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 elementary students to leave the schools they got into under the choice plan and move to their new zone or "home" school.

Board members ended up agreeing with a group of parent advocates, who pointed out that the district promised families in writing that children could remain in their choice schools until they finished out.

"I don't see how we can go back on that commitment," said board member Peggy O'Shea. "I think we have to honor the promises made under choice."

The decision, however, erases much of the savings the district had hoped to gain by moving away from the choice plan's onerous busing requirements -- and may even cost taxpayers more.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox said the district would need what amounts to a second bus system to transport the students who would be "grandfathered" into their current schools.

Cost of grandfathering

The cost: about $5-million a year more than the $47.5-million the district now pays for busing. The extra cost would last for the five years it would take for the grandfathered students to cycle through the system.

"I think the price tag is going to change the conversation once again," Wilcox said in an interview after the board's all-day workshop Thursday. "I don't know how you can pay for that."

He referred to the grim recitation of fiscal woes facing the district that were outlined earlier in the workshop. District budget officials said state revenue declines could force Pinellas to cut as much as $18-million from its 2007-08 budget, not including more cuts that might be needed later if Florida voters approve a large property tax exemption in a January referendum.

Machon Kennedy, leader of a parent group that pushed to grandfather all students into their current schools, was skeptical of the cost estimates. She questioned whether they accounted for the fact that some families won't want to stay in their choice school and that the district's obligation to grandfather students will decline each year.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," she said of the board's decision, which won't be final until November. "Nothing's done until it's done."

Key elements

Board members and Wilcox also agreed on several other key elements of the plan. A summary:

The new plan calls for all five magnet schools to draw some students countywide and some from their area of the county, as most of them do now.

Still undecided is what mix of countywide vs. "area" students each school would have, and how that "area" would be defined.

Impact on racial lines

Talk of the magnet schools steered board members and Wilcox into some of the most substantive discussions yet on how the new plan might affect the racial makeup at some schools.

"You're going to have more segregated schools," said chairwoman Mary Brown, the board's only black member. She cited projections indicating several schools would be predominantly black under the new plan.

"I want to see more diversity in the schools," said Brown, who pushed for more magnet schools and for having those magnets draw students exclusively from throughout the county.

But Wilcox and other administrators argued that those ideas would reduce the number of seats available for black students who would want to attend a neighborhood school.

Wilcox cited a parent survey showing a majority of black parents wanted a chance at a school close to home.

Board member Jane Gallucci said the district's plans to create diversity should involve the entire county and go beyond largely black areas of St. Petersburg. She cited large Hispanic populations at some mid and north county schools.

Hispanic students are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Pinellas schools, up 17 percent since 2003. White enrollment is down 14 percent and black enrollment down 11 percent.

The board has scheduled another all-day workshop next Thursday in what could be its final meeting before taking the plan to the public. A series of "community input" meetings begins Sept. 18 at Palm Harbor University High School.

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