School assignment plan delay may last a week -- or a year

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007

The much-discussed plan that would return Pinellas County to a system of neighborhood schools has been thrown off the rails, at least until next week.

After numerous delays, superintendent Clayton Wilcox announced Tuesday that the plan may not be ready for next school year because of a last-minute change requested by board members.

Four of them, a majority, want to make it easier for students living near magnet and fundamental schools to get into those schools. Below, some questions and answers about the change, the delay and the implications.

What happened? The School Board seemed so close to approving a new student assignment plan Tuesday.

Board members Janet Clark, Carol Cook, Jane Gallucci and Linda Lerner wanted the plan to give students who live near magnet or fundamental elementary schools priority when applying. They said it was a fairness issue, noting that 11 of the 13 elementary schools south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg would be magnet or fundamental schools that draw students through a countywide admission process. That would leave only two elementaries in a large section of the city serving as neighborhood schools. Wilcox said the board's direction may have come too late to be implemented in time for the 2008-09 school year. If board members insist on the change, he said, the whole plan might have to be delayed until 2009-10.

There's plenty of time before school starts next August. Why couldn't this change be made before then?

District officials say they would have to retool the computer software used in the random selection process that decides which kids get into magnet and fundamental schools. They say it appears they wouldn't be able to do that in time for the application period, which would start by early February to leave the district time for all students to be assigned. It's a multistep process that takes up a good chunk of the spring and must end by the start of summer, when the district starts designing bus routes.

How real is the possibility the plan won't be in place by next year?

Wilcox and his staff say the computer software issue could be a real barrier to getting the change made. So the question becomes whether the four board members feel the change is worth holding up the plan for a year. The board has scheduled a workshop and a special meeting for next Tuesday, where a final vote on the plan is still possible. We contacted Gallucci, who said the change wasn't worth a delay. "I'm not willing to jeopardize the big picture for it," she said. Cook said she didn't know yet. At this point, it's hard to count four sure votes in favor of the plan as written.

How would this priority work for kids who live near magnet and fundamental schools?

The board would decide what percentage of neighborhood kids to let into incoming kindergarten classes at each of those schools. After that, the so-called "proximity preference" could be granted in a couple of ways. Say the board settles on 10 percent. One way is to rank kids by how close they live to the school and admit them in that order until you reach 10 percent of the school's kindergarten capacity. Another way is to give kids within a 1- or 2-mile radius random numbers and let them in by numerical order until you hit 10 percent.

Would current magnet and fundamental students be moved to make room for neighborhood kids?

No. Board members said they had no such plans, despite a rumor to the contrary.

The new plan is supposed to save millions on busing costs. Wouldn't delaying it for a year cost money that could be used in classrooms?

No. In fact, the opposite is true. The new plan will actually cost $3-million to $5-million more in its initial years because the board decided to allow students to remain in their current schools rather than forcing them into their new "close-to-home" schools. The result: a two-tiered bus system that will be more complex and expensive to operate, at least until more kids start attending their neighborhood schools.

Why are so many magnet and fundamental schools clustered south of Central Avenue?

Because they originally were part of an effort to attract white students to schools in that area's black neighborhoods, thereby reducing the need to bus kids so court-ordered race ratios could be met. The ratios and court mandates have passed into history, but the schools remain and they continue to attract white families.

Why not solve the problem by turning some of these schools into regular neighborhood schools?

That idea was briefly discussed, but it never gained steam. In part, the reason is that district officials say they need magnets and fundamentals to maintain diversity in an age when courts no longer permit districts to assign students by race.

What's next?

The School Board meets in a workshop from 1:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Tuesday to discuss proximity preferences. If they decide to keep the plan on track for next year, they will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. and take a final vote. Both meetings will be held at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

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