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Assignment rules softened

"Close-to-home" schools emphasized but more "grandfathering" and choices added.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 24, 2007

LARGO - The Pinellas School Board ended months of tedious discussion Tuesday, informally agreeing on a new system that in time would steer most students to their neighborhood schools but also offer other choices.

The downside, many agreed, was that several schools quickly will become predominantly black for the first time in a generation.

Another drawback: Initial plans to immediately cut millions in busing costs gradually gave way to public criticism as board members opted for a slow transition that would disrupt few, if any, families.

Early plans to force students into new "close-to-home" schools starting in 2008-09 morphed into a generous "grandfathering" program that will allow all students now in the system to remain in their current schools until they finish out.

The board also softened initial proposals to hasten the transition by denying bus service to grandfathered students. Now, all students who elect to be grandfathered will get a bus ride if they qualify.

As a result, the district won't begin to see a budget savings until the plan's third year, superintendent Clayton Wilcox said. "It's probably a short term loss to get to a long term victory."

The board is scheduled to take an initial vote on the plan Nov. 13. A final vote is set for Dec. 11.

Under the plan, each school would be surrounded by a zone and students who live within the zone would be assigned there. As an alternative, students could apply for a "countywide" program such as a magnet or fundamental school. They also could try to get into any other school in the district, providing that school had space and the student could get a ride there.

The district plans to develop an electronic map in coming months that would clearly designate a "close-to-home" school for every student.

Also Tuesday, officials offered an early glimpse of how parents would navigate the new system. Early next year, students could apply for a seat in a countywide program. Next would come a period in which the district would ask students to state whether they wanted to be grandfathered into their current school or assigned to their new close-to-home school. After that: an "open enrollment" period for families to explore other options if they didn't get a school they wanted.

The open enrollment period was a new twist announced Tuesday. It probably will take the place of the "special attendance permit" announced earlier.

Five members of the board signaled that they are ready to approve the plan. The remaining two, Mary Brown and Linda Lerner, appeared ready to vote "no" on the grounds it will do little to prevent the return of predominantly black schools.

"If that's what this board wants, fine," said Brown, the board's chairwoman and its only black member. "That's not what I want."

Lerner said the emphasis on assigning students to a close-to-home school imposed segregated schools on the district. She lobbied for a wholesale change that offered families more choices, but no one joined her.

"There are many parts of this plan that have not been thought through," Lerner said.

Both board members pushed to delay the plan another year. But Wilcox began Tuesday's workshop with a call to move ahead.

"This plan has been very well vetted and it is well thought out," he said. "We think that the time to begin is, in fact, now. This community deserves to know what's happening with its school system."

He cited this year's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on desegregation, which limited the methods districts can employ to create more diversity in schools.

"You cannot overcome the legacy of societal segregation by simply reassigning kids solely on the basis of race," Wilcox told board members. "You can't do that."

Responding to calls in recent days that the district should try harder for diversity, Wilcox said his staff performed computer runs to show what would need to happen to make every school's enrollment match the demographic makeup of the district.

The only way is to bus large numbers of students again, Wilcox said. "Quite honestly it's horrific to look at because it is simply the arbitrary grouping of kids without regard to their needs."

He also sought to address predictions by some black residents that the district would never provide equal resources for schools with large numbers of poor students, many of them black.

Seven residents sat in the audience Tuesday wearing T-shirts that said, "Say No 2 Separate and Unequal Schools."

But Wilcox said the district already is spending more on schools with large populations of minority and poor children. He listed 10 such schools with per-student budgets ranging from $7,664 a year to $9,008 a year.

The district average: $6,600 a year.

"I don't think any board member wants to return to segregated schools, but we are between a rock and hard place trying to be all things to all people," board member Janet Clark said.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said the district should press ahead with the plan and focus on the achievement gap.

"We can work within segregated populations to do it if we have to," she said. "I think we could be an example throughout the country."

Also Tuesday, the board made a few late changes to the plan, agreeing to:

- Give a preference to younger students trying to join an older sibling at a school. An earlier proposal would only have allowed the reverse of that - older kids joining younger siblings.

- Provide bus service for all students who elect to be grandfathered into their current school. In a previous version of the plan, only middle and high school grandfathered students were to be given a bus ride.

- Grant a preference to students who live near two new magnet schools, Douglas L. Jamerson and James B. Sanderlin elementaries. That allows those students to get in before students who apply from other areas of the county.

Fast Facts:

Tuesday's changes

The Pinellas School Board agreed to several changes before tentatively approving the student assignment plan Tuesday. Among the new features:

- A preference allowing younger students to join an older sibling at a school.

- Bus service for all students who elect to be "grandfathered" into their current school.

- A preference that gives neighborhood students priority access to two new magnet schools, Douglas L. Jamerson and James B. Sanderlin elementaries.

- An "open enrollment" period allowing students who don't get into a school they like to try for another option.

Plan details

A rundown of changes made Tuesday in the student assignment plan is on 10A.

On the Web

For more information on the plan, go to


[Last modified October 24, 2007, 01:32:01]

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