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Certainty proving elusive

Too many issues remain unresolved for a neighborhood schools plan to be finalized.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007


It was going to be a day of decision for the Pinellas School Board, a three-hour meeting to boil down three weeks of public comment and finalize a plan to create a system of neighborhood schools.

An initial vote next week was to be followed by a final vote Nov. 13. Thousands of public school families were to have some certainty by Thanksgiving.

Make that Christmas.

Board members left Thursday's workshop with several issues unresolved, their timetable pushed back and the new plan in a muddled state. Despite the presence of a facilitator who tried to keep the group on task, their discussion was by turns meandering, repetitious, off-topic and laced with speeches.

In the final 15 minutes, board members hurried through a handful of decisions to salvage a morning of work.

"We're really going to have to go back and regroup, and make sense of the conversation," said school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, whose staff had asked the board to reach a consensus in time for the first formal vote Tuesday.

Now, it appears, that first vote won't be possible until Nov. 13, with the final vote pushed to the board's Dec. 11 meeting. Lost in the delay: a month that district staffers would have used to prepare and ensure the plan is carried off smoothly by early next year when students are assigned to schools for 2008-09.

Among the areas where the board did reach consensus:

-School closings. A tenuous 4-3 majority agreed on a widely discussed plan to deal with enrollment declines by closing Clearview, Largo Central and South Ward elementaries, plus Riviera Middle School. Board members Mary Brown, Janet Clark and Linda Lerner said they opposed making the decision without more information.

-Grandfathering. Reversing its previous stand, the board agreed to allow younger children not yet in the system to be grandfathered into schools now attended by their older siblings. The decision - a response to parents' pleas at three public forums this week - will increase the number of students allowed to stay in their current schools rather than being forced to attend their new neighborhood or "close-to-home" schools.

-Equity in school funding. Board members agreed the plan should include a statement pledging to even the playing field for schools with large numbers of struggling students by providing more "resources." It was a response to parents who said the return to a neighborhood system will create schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students.

-Magnet schools. In another reversal, a board majority said all magnet schools would have to set aside some percentage of seats for students who live in the neighborhood. They did not specify a percentage, however. Previously, the board had said magnet schools could draw their students only from applications made across the county or a large portion of the county.

Focus on diversity

Because the district's magnet schools are in mostly black neighborhoods, the discussion centered on the issue of diversity. Drawing from a wider pool of applicants encourages more racially diverse enrollments at magnets. But most board members couldn't get past the fact that 11 of the 13 elementary schools in the mostly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg are magnets or fundamental schools. Under the plan as previously outlined, none of those 11 schools would have set aside seats for neighborhood kids.

Board members Nancy Bostock and Brown argued against setting aside neighborhood seats, saying it would reduce diversity. Bostock said many neighborhood students would get in by applying through the countywide process.

But a board majority said failing to set aside seats for kids who live near magnets could shut them out of vibrant programs they might not have access to at regular schools.

"I'm not ready to give that up," said Jane Gallucci, a longtime board member who recalled voting to build several of those schools so neighborhood students would have enough seats.

"I believe in integration," she said, "but I also believe in kids."

A slower approach

Also Thursday, Lerner and Brown dominated much of the discussion with calls to halt the board's efforts to approve the plan in time for next school year.

"I'm not looking at voting on a whole new plan in the time frame we have," Lerner said. "I just want to be sure we're doing everything we can to encourage diversity. I don't think we've done it."

Brown said she sensed public confusion about the plan at this week's public forums.

"I feel we have not been clear," she said. "Why must we do this next year? ... I want us to stop and take longer to do this."

Though the two repeated their points almost every time they spoke, the rest of the board disagreed.

Bostock said calls for a plan with more diversity ignored the cost involved: moving families into schools against their will.

That fact would not change with time, she argued. "I really want us to get more real with our conversations."

Said Gallucci: "We're the ones where the buck stops, and we've got to ingest all that information and decide what's the best (plan) without throwing the baby out with the bathwater ... I'm clear on where this plan should go."

Making the change

The board is under no legal obligation to change the current school choice plan now, or ever. Choice was part of the settlement in the district's long-running desegregation lawsuit; it was designed as a transition after 30-plus years of busing.

But district officials have pointed to its unpopularity and to surveys indicating a majority of parents want a system of neighborhood schools.

In an interview after Thursday's meeting, Wilcox said he is exploring a slower rollout of the new plan that would draw out the transition for years but ease concerns.

It involves phasing it in by requiring only students in the entry grades - kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade - to attend their neighborhood school.

Wilcox said he had wanted a cleaner, quicker break from the old system. "But I guess it's not meant to be."

[Last modified October 12, 2007, 02:39:47]

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