School assignment details still unsure

With less than a month before a final vote, board members are still hashing out options.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007

Halfway through what was supposed to be their last work session before signing off on a new student assignment plan, Pinellas School Board members on Tuesday agreed on one important point.

They'll need another work session before Dec. 11, the day they're scheduled to take a final vote on the plan.

Progress has been made in recent weeks in some areas, including a section that has been added outlining ways the district will provide equitable funding to schools with economically and educationally disadvantaged students.

But some nagging questions linger. Among them is how the district will find "close to home" seats for all children who live south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

Jim Madden, associate superintendent in charge of student assignment, presented a scenario at the workshop to illustrate the potential problem.

This year, Madden said, about 880 kindergartners live in the area between Central Avenue and the Sunshine Skyway. But only about half of them go to school in the area. The rest attend schools as far as 10 miles away.

A key component of the proposed plan is having children attend schools close to home. But that may not be possible unless the board makes room for the students by choosing from among several options.

The simplest solution, Madden said, would be to add more seats to elementary magnet schools in south Pinellas and reserve a portion of the seats for neighborhood children. Another option would be to add portables to some campuses.

But there are other options the board could consider, Madden said, including double sessions or an extended school year, in which groups of children would attend school at different times of the year.

Board member Janet Clark was quick to object, saying that the district needs a universal set of rules that will affect schools in north and south county equally.

"I hate to say this, but I see this as a deal breaker," Clark said. "I don't know that any of these are satisfactory options."

Board member Nancy Bostock threw another option on the table, asking if some of the south Pinellas schools that are considered "attendance area magnets" - schools with special programs open to children in a broad geographic area but not countywide - might be converted to neighborhood schools.

"If most of the students are going to those schools because of their location and not because of the magnet program, those are schools we should think about making a 'close to home' school," Bostock said.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox acknowledged that might be a logical step, since some attendance area magnets already draw as many as 70 percent of their population from the neighborhoods surrounding them.

In the end, board members asked Wilcox to bring more data to an additional workshop that will be scheduled for next week.

Among the information they requested was a report on whether adding seats to magnet schools and possibly to fundamental programs and setting the seats aside for neighborhood children would provide enough additional spaces for all children who may want to attend school south of Central Avenue.

In other business Tuesday, the board held its annual reorganization meeting, electing Bostock chairwoman for the coming year. Board member Peggy O'Shea was elected vice chairwoman.

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413.