Pinellas schools' student plan is largely finished
The School Board is finalizing a system to assign thousands of students close to home each year.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 31, 2007
It was another tedious meeting, another day of slogging through the process of creating a new system for assigning more than 100,000 Pinellas students to schools each year.
But after a summer of work, the Pinellas School Board on Thursday largely finished a plan that would assign each student to a school close to home while also offering families a number of other choices such as magnet programs and fundamental schools.
The process will continue with a series of public forums over the next six weeks -- three in which administrators will present the plan and take comments, and three more in a School Board "listening tour."
That does not include additional workshops and two public hearings in October and November, when the board is expected to approve the plan.
"I know this is like being pregnant," chairwoman Mary Brown told her fellow board members, all of them mothers. "You're still in the process of going through labor. But you will deliver."
A late addition to the plan announced Thursday will offer families more potential choices than initially envisioned. The system creates a zone around each school, and most students will go to school in their zone.
But it now will allow students the chance to enroll in a regular school anywhere else in the county, providing that school has space and the students get there themselves.
The district will not offer bus service to students who choose a school other than the one in their zone.
To accomplish this, students need only ask for a "special attendance permit." The permit would be available at all three levels -- elementary, middle and high school.
In earlier versions of the plan, the system allowed some movement to other schools besides the zone school, but it was designed to keep students within an "attendance area" in their region of the county.
Also Thursday, the board followed up on its decision last week to allow students to stay in their current school if that school is not their new zone school. The issue was whether to provide bus service to these "grandfathered" students.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox proposed withholding bus service from all grandfathered students, a move that he said would save the district between $6-million and $8-million a year. He said the savings would be used to strengthen magnet programs, and the added flexibility in the bus system would allow the district to improve start times at schools.
High schools and middle schools would open at 7:30 a.m., he said.
But board members rejected the idea, opting to provide bus rides to grandfathered students in high school and middle school. Board members argued in part that they didn't want to force the older students to leave schools where they had built strong connections.
"If you're captain of the football team, you certainly don't want to move to another school just because you don't have a ride," said board member Peggy O'Shea.
Board member Janet Clark argued that not many parents would be available to pick up their kids when middle schools let out at 4 p.m.
The board's decision, however, will leave thousands of elementary students without a bus ride unless they decide not to be grandfathered and opt for their new zone school.
A frustrated Wilcox said the decision would drastically reduce any savings in busing costs during lean times for the district. He also said it was unfair to grandfathered elementary students who won't get bus rides.
Many of their parents will be knocking on the board's door today, he predicted. "I can probably hear the engines starting around town now."
In an interview, Wilcox added: "We want to jettison costs, but (board members) don't seem to want to jettison costs. ... How do you defend giving a high school senior a ride but not a 6-year-old who needs it more?"
The board also tackled the issue of race after board member Linda Lerner called for turning three St. Petersburg elementary schools -- Campbell Park, Maximo and Lakewood - into full-fledged magnet programs. All three are currently "area magnets," meaning they draw students from the southern portion of the county.
A full magnet is open to students throughout the county, which is thought to generate a more diverse student body. Without full magnet status, the three schools soon would be "resegregated" or predominantly black, Lerner argued.
"I think we're doing something very dangerous," she said.
But administrators argued that turning three more St. Petersburg schools into magnets would leave too few regular seats for students who live in predominantly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.
Board member Nancy Bostock said existing magnets and fundamental schools, both popular with parents, would create substantial diversity.
Board member Jane Gallucci said the district would be better off steering resources, good teachers and good principals to those schools rather than "social engineering" their student bodies.
O'Shea noted that a recent survey of district parents found that black and nonblack parents said they wanted their kids in schools close to home, even if it sacrificed diversity.
FAST FACTS: Plan's time line
Here is the School Board's time line to approve the new student assignment plan:
- Sept. 18: "Community input meeting" held by district administrators to get public advice on the draft - 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Palm Harbor University High, 1900 Omaha St., Palm Harbor.
- Sept. 26: Community input meeting - 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo.
- Sept. 27: Community input meeting - 6:30-8:30 p.m. at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, St. Petersburg.
- Oct. 8, 9, 10: Board members conduct a "listening tour" to get more public opinion.
- Oct. 16: Public hearing and initial vote on the new plan.
- Nov. 13: Public hearing and final vote on the plan.