Teachers: Realign resources

They don't want some schools hurt under "close-to-home" plan.

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

The Pinellas teachers union has endorsed the district's plan to create a system of neighborhood schools.

But it also urges officials to focus on a negative side effect - schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students.

A resolution by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association calls on the district to realign its budget to give extra help to such schools, which typically have students who struggle academically.

The group recommended several steps it says could be paid for with savings from reduced busing costs. Among them: smaller teacher-pupil ratios at struggling schools, extra pay for teachers at those schools, an independent panel to ensure the district has the right resources in the right places, and a change in school start times.

The union said the current start times of 7:05 a.m. for high schools and 9:45 a.m. for middle schools were "socially unacceptable" and ignored "the research on sleep and nutritional needs."

The union's faculty representative council approved the resolution unanimously Thursday night, said Kim Black, president of the group. She said teachers from 78 schools were represented in the vote.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the School Board have said several times in recent weeks that they plan to give struggling schools extra help. Wilcox has spoken often of plans for lower teacher-pupil ratios, among other measures. He also has said he would like to explore a change in start times.

Still, the district has yet to offer a detailed plan. Black said the union would like to see more specifics before the plan is approved next month.

The resources to address problems at struggling schools should be in place early, she said. Too often, she said, "we wait until there's a problem and then do these knee-jerk reactions."

School Board member Peggy O'Shea said the district has been concentrating on getting the new assignment plan finished. Soon, she said, the public needs a detailed look at how the district will address schools that end up with high concentrations of poor students, many of them African-American.

"I think everybody's had these concerns to some degree," O'Shea said. "I think we need to reassure the parents ... The word has to go out as to what's going to happen next year."

O'Shea added that the district needs to find new ways to engage struggling students beyond traditional remediation. "Our way of thinking has to change," she said.

The new plan would assign students to a "close-to-home" school, but they also could get into any other school in the county, provided that school had space and the student could get there without district bus service. In addition, students would have access to special programs such as magnet and fundamental schools.

Students now in the system would be allowed to remain in their current schools until they finish out, a feature that would delay any savings from busing costs for about three years. Eventually, though, the district expects the vast majority of families to settle into their "close-to-home" schools.

Because schools would mirror the makeup of their neighborhoods, several would become predominantly black for the first time in decades.

The board is scheduled to take an initial vote on the plan at its Nov. 13 meeting. A final vote is expected Dec. 11. At both meetings a public hearing will take place before the vote.

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

On the Web

Read all about it

See a copy of the teacher union resolution at www.pcta-pespa.org under the heading "Student Assignment Plan Update." For more information on the plan, including a Q&A and links to key documents, go to education.tampabay.com.