Assignment plan may be delayed one year

The school chief says he hopes he is wrong about the setback.

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

LARGO -- Pinellas County's new student assignment plan, the subject of months of work and numerous public hearings, could be delayed a year, superintendent Clayton Wilcox said in a surprising development Tuesday.

The twist came after an afternoon workshop in which a School Board majority pushed for a last-minute change that would offer more seats to students who live near magnet and fundamental elementary schools.

Wilcox said the change may be too complex to carry out in time for the 2008-09 school year.

"There are just too many unanswered questions for us as an administrative team," he said, adding there was "a real likelihood" the plan would not start until the 2009-10 school year.

The superintendent said that he hoped he was wrong and that the district could resolve the questions after a workshop and a special meeting next Tuesday. "We're going to try, we absolutely will move every stone," he said. "But it may not be possible."

Already a month behind its original schedule, the board was set to approve the plan Tuesday night, but Wilcox pulled it from the agenda.

For some, a year's delay might not be a bad thing.

"To me the plan is not ready for prime time," Norm Brown, head of the NAACP of St. Petersburg, told school officials. "You need to get your act together."

The change that sparked the delay: Four of the seven board members insisted that a certain percentage of students who live near magnet and fundamental schools get priority over other students during the admissions process. The board members primarily were concerned with the area south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, where 11 of 13 elementary schools are fundamental or magnet schools.

Under the plan as written, nine of those 11 schools would draw all of their students from across the county or from a large portion of south Pinellas. That can make it harder for students south of Central to get into schools in their neighborhoods.

"This plan the way it is, many African-American students live across the street from a school and will not get in. And that is not fair," said Linda Lerner, who pushed for the change with fellow board members Janet Clark, Carol Cook and Jane Gallucci.

"The students from the area are not getting in," said Gallucci, citing enrollment figures released Tuesday that show limited numbers of neighborhood students are getting into some south-of-Central schools.

Among the examples cited by board members: Lakeview Fundamental, where 9.8 percent of the 326 students live within 1.5 miles of the school, and Perkins Elementary, where 18.7 percent of the 541 students come from within that radius.

Gallucci recalled voting several years ago to build more than $100-million worth of schools south of Central as part of a settlement in the district's long-running desegregation case -- a settlement that led to the choice plan and ultimately to Tuesday's turning point.

"I wanted the kids down there at this point in time to be able to have the choice to go there," she said. "And I'm not backing down from that."

Clark responded to recent e-mails by fundamental parents, saying some sounded as if they did not want more black children in their schools.

"I'm not saying for all people it is the issue, but for a lot of people it is," she said. "You have your private school there with your involved parents and, 'Hey, the heck with the rest of the district. I want my school to stay this way.'"

She added: "We're here to educate all children and I think any child that lives next to a school and has an interest in going to that school and is committed to that school deserves to go to that school."

The four board members suggested that a small percentage of kindergarteners who apply for magnets and fundamentals and live near those schools get a "proximity preference" during the admission process. But they left it to Wilcox and his staff to come up with a number. A range of 5 to 15 percent of incoming kindergarteners was suggested.

Despite their focus on schools south of Central Avenue, the board members made clear they wanted a proximity preference for all magnet and fundamental elementary schools countywide.

Board members Nancy Bostock and Mary Brown strongly opposed the change, saying it would make those schools less diverse. Bostock also said the change would dilute the ability of families throughout the county to have choices in addition to their neighborhood schools.

"If we're going to alter the fundamental structure of this plan I'm going to have to think twice about the plan itself," she said.

Wilcox said the proximity preference for all magnet and fundamental elementary schools raised several issues. He said his staff told him it would be difficult on short notice to devise that many algorithms, which are used for the random computer lottery that decides which students get in.

Another issue: should the board extend proximity preferences to middle and high school magnet and fundamental programs, given the plan's goal of having uniform rules?

He said the staff needed time.

"The worst thing in the world for us is to start the plan and not have places for kids to go to school ... because we rushed it," Wilcox said.

The issue first arose last month after the superintendent told the board that the area south of Central Avenue could have a shortage of seats when the plan starts. In response, some board members began talking about using a proximity preference at all magnet and fundamental schools. But Wilcox said the problem could be solved, in part by adding portable classrooms at some schools and delaying the planned closing of Clearview Avenue Elementary in St. Petersburg.

Lerner suggested Tuesday that the delay might have been unnecessary had Wilcox acted sooner on the desire by a board majority for a proximity preference. Wilcox said the board wasn't at all clear on what it wanted.

"I don't think it's the board's fault where we are," Lerner said. "It's a complicated issue."

Bostock said of the plan and Tuesday's unexpected turn: "It's going to take a little longer to get there. It may not be pleasant to watch but it'll be better when we do get there."

That can't be too soon, said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union. She said teachers are worried about the impact of the four school closings that are part of the plan.

Her reaction to the delay: "Fatigue. Disgust. We're going into the holidays with high level of stress and anxiety. The teachers just want to know where are their students going and where are they going to be teaching."

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

School Board members meet in a workshop Tuesday in an attempt to decide whether they can take a final vote on the student assignment plan.