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Pinellas board hesitates on school choice

"We thought we had a consensus" about the plan, the superintendent said after doubts surfaced.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 3, 2007

Pinellas County school officials listen to residents' concerns over the district's proposed student assignment program during a Sept. 27 forum at John Hopkins Middle School.
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]

LARGO -- Six weeks before their landmark vote to change the way students are assigned to schools, several Pinellas School Board members have serious doubts.

Board members Janet Clark, Carol Cook and Peggy O'Shea said Tuesday that they would approve the new assignment plan in November but that the district may be biting off too much too soon. They suggested implementing the plan over time instead of all at once next school year.

Board member Linda Lerner said she wanted board members to revisit several major issues they already decided in August, including the closing of four schools. "I feel very rushed on that one," she said.

And Mary Brown, the board's chairwoman, said she wouldn't vote for the plan as currently written.

"I have felt strongly that we are rushing to judgment on this," she said at Tuesday's board workshop. "Maybe it's best to stop and take more time on this."

In an interview, Brown said her main concern was that the new plan would make several schools in St. Petersburg predominantly black. The plan returns the district to a system of neighborhood schools after three decades of busing followed by a rocky five-year transition under the choice plan.

Tuesday's surprising development comes as the board plans a "listening tour" next week to get a second round of public input on the plan.

It also brings race to the forefront as never before during the two-year process, with Brown -- the board's only black member -- taking her strongest stand yet against resegregated schools.

Brown said she was emboldened after attending a weekend conference in Atlanta by the Council of Urban Boards of Education. There, presenters said that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision left districts with some leeway to racially integrate schools, even as it struck down desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville.

"I have to do it the way that I feel," Brown said when asked what message her stand would send. "Maybe when you're not black it doesn't mean that much. But I know the history of segregated schools, and I don't want any part of that."

Pinellas is under no legal obligation to change or replace the choice plan, having been freed several years ago from federal court supervision.

However, the board is changing the plan in response to families who have said they want a system of neighborhood schools.

The sudden hesitation by most of the board left two of its members puzzled and superintendent Clayton Wilcox faced with the task of regrouping.

"We thought we had a consensus," Wilcox said.

Board member Jane Gallucci said she favored moving with caution, but argued the district needed to at least implement the bulk of the plan now to end the uncertainty that Pinellas parents have felt for years.

She also said she was "flabbergasted" by Brown's suggestion to put the plan on hold.

"Two years planning on something like this is not rushing," board member Nancy Bostock said in answer to Brown.

Bostock argued that the board has built in a slow transition to the new plan by allowing thousands of students to be "grandfathered" into their current schools instead of being immediately assigned to a neighborhood or "close-to-home" school.

But Cook noted that the plan doesn't give bus rides to thousands of students who exercise the grandfathering option.

"I have concerns that for people who cannot provide transportation for their children, there is very little choice," she said.

Cook proposed phasing in the plan by requiring that only students in the entry grades -- kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade -- attend their neighborhood school next year.

O'Shea said in an interview she was concerned about the many details that would need to be worked out in the time between the board's final vote in November and early next year, when students are assigned to schools.

The district would have to get some idea of how many students will be going to each school, so it would somehow have to gauge how many will be grandfathered and how many would opt to be in their close-to-home school.

Under the plan, students would stay at their current school unless they notified the district they wanted their close-to-home school. But O'Shea noted that for many, the decision to stay means they won't get a bus ride, and many parents won't realize that until it's too late.

"And now we have a kid that's in a school they can't get to," she said.

O'Shea said she wants to make sure district staffers have a handle on issues like that. If it's too much for them to implement before 2008-09, she said she would support launching parts of the plan later.

Like Brown, Lerner said she wanted to take a closer look at options to make schools more diverse.

In addition, she wants the board to revisit its decision to allow all full-fledged magnet schools to draw students from throughout the county. She expressed concern for students living near those schools who may not be able to get in, and suggested a "proximity preference" to give them a better chance at a spot.

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at or (727) 821-1935.

[Last modified October 3, 2007, 01:11:58]

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