School plan is still evolving

A new student assignment system could get costly, Wilcox warns.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007

Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Wednesday that a proposed system for assigning students to schools could be "the envy" of districts across the nation.

But he also issued a strong caveat, saying recent decisions by the School Board will make the plan more expensive and difficult to implement.

"I think what we're set up for is a very long transitional period and, quite honestly, some expenditures that we could have avoided," Wilcox told the Times editorial board.

He outlined one scenario in which the district's $48-million busing budget could increase by up to $6-million annually over a five-year transition - a long way from his initial proposal for a two-year transition and bus savings of $10-million.

Wilcox predicted an uproar over decisions last month as the board shaped the new plan, which would steer most families to a school close to home.

After pressure from hundreds of parents, the board decided to grandfather all students now in the system, allowing them to remain in their current schools when the plan begins next year. Because thousands are in schools other than their new "close-to-home" school, the decision will mean a slow transition to a system of neighborhood schools.

The board later decided to offer bus service to grandfathered students in middle and high schools but not to those who stay in their elementary schools.

Wilcox said: "The concern that I now have is we haven't yet heard from the elementary parents who are going to say, 'Wait a minute. I go to work at X time. You're telling me my elementary school student, if they want to stay at the school that you're giving them, has to walk there?"'

Wilcox predicted board members will be asked to revisit the issue. If they decide to give bus service to all grandfathered elementary school students, he said, the district's busing costs could top $50-million.

Wilcox said he understood the board's decisions on grandfathering, but he made clear he disagreed with them. Wilcox would have preferred a quicker transition with fewer grandfathered students and no bus service for them.

In other comments, Wilcox said he has been nagged by doubts about whether the new plan is what the public wants. The plan would replace the 4-year-old choice system, which followed 32 years of busing for desegregation.

"For three years going into this, I heard nothing but how terrible choice was, and now I have literally hundreds of parents, if not thousands of parents, who say choice worked for me," Wilcox said.

So far, he said, the plan reflects the feelings of Pinellas parents surveyed last year. The district sent surveys to 33,290 public school households and got responses from 7,716.

Large majorities of respondents of all races said they favored a system that would give them schools close to home, even if it left them with fewer options and schools with less diversity.

"Given the outpouring lately, I think we've got to double-check that," Wilcox said.

Does the public want to replace choice with a system of neighborhood schools? "I will honestly tell you I don't have a sense of it right now," he said.

The district plans to conduct a new survey of thousands of public school households, either with a mass mailing or a short poll using its automated calling system, Wilcox said.

He also said he planned meetings with the north and south county chapters of the NAACP, local ministers and rabbis, city officials in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, county officials and members of the Pinellas Education Foundation.

The outreach efforts and the doubts that spawned them have come with little time left in the process. Only two months remain before the School Board expects to take a final vote on the new plan.

A detailed outline of the plan will be presented to the public next Tuesday in the first of three "community input" forums. After that, the board will hold a "listening tour" with three public forums throughout the county. Formal votes are scheduled Oct. 16 and Nov. 13.

Despite his misgivings, Wilcox said he is generally pleased with the plan. It would divide the district into eight attendance areas for elementary schools, six for middle schools and seven for high schools. Each school would be surrounded by a zone and students within that zone would be assigned to that school.

Students also could choose magnet or fundamental schools or other special programs.

In addition, they could choose a regular school other than their zone school, even a school in another area of the county. But there would have to be room for them at that school, and they would not receive bus service.

Early next year, parents will receive a call or letter telling them the name of each student's new assigned zone school. Students who want that school would respond to the district. Those who do not respond would be telling the district they want to remain in their current school.

Families new to the system will apply at computer kiosks at each school offering real-time information on open seats throughout the district.

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

On the web

How will it work

Get informed on the new student assignment plan with our Q&A, a schedule of public forums and last year's survey of district households. Go to education.tampabay.com.