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More on classes, less on buses
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published September 15, 2007
When Pinellas school officials abandoned neighborhood zones five years ago and embraced a student assignment plan with nearly unfettered choice, they acted as though money were no object. They can't afford to make that mistake again.
The plan that superintendent Clayton Wilcox will bring Tuesday to the first of many public hearings helps restore the lost connection between communities and their schools and offers families a certainty they have lacked under the vagaries of choice. But the School Board is already so obsessed with how families might respond to the transition that it could end up doing the unthinkable. Board members might actually replace a plan that dramatically increased the cost of busing with one that pushes costs even higher.
This is no small matter. The transportation budget this year, $48.5-million, is nearly triple what the district spent only five years ago, before choice. Further, the state is facing a $1.1-billion revenue shortfall, which Wilcox says could cost Pinellas schools $17-million this year alone.
School Board members are understandably concerned about the possibility of forcing students to change schools in 2008-09. But no one has proposed uprooting high school students from campuses where they have made a home, and Wilcox has proposed letting middle and older elementary students finish out at their existing schools if they choose.
The real decision is whether to expand grandfathering to all students and give them bus transportation as well. Such a course might appear to please constituents, but it would be short-sighted and punish all students by stealing more money from dwindling classroom finances and maintaining a three-tier busing regimen that costs students far too many of their waking hours.
The grandfather-all option also undermines what a survey suggests is the most appealing part of the new plan. It could prevent students from going to the school closest to home because their seat is taken by a student who got there through the old plan.
Pinellas School Board members have not generally been known for courage, but they should be buoyed by the overall response so far. The new plan goes a long way toward correcting the mistakes of choice, and board members may well find that some students are eager for the opportunity to return to schools closer to home. If that turns out to be true, then their worries about grandfathering will have been exaggerated.
What board members need to remember is that the new assignment plan is projected to reduce needless busing so much that it would free up $10-million a year for classrooms and allow high school students to start school at a more reasonable time. But that's only if the district doesn't decide to maintain two separate busing systems, for new and old assignments, during a transition of undetermined length.
If board members believe their new plan is an improvement to school assignment, then they need not apologize for asking to students to participate. They can always allow students to stay at their current school by requiring, as part of the tradeoff, that the student find his or her own transportation if that school is different from their new zone school. That's fair enough.
The new plan says that "every student deserves a great school close to home," which is wholly inconsistent with more busing. Parents want their tax money spent in classrooms, not on buses.