Assignment plan bogs school board

Finalizing a plan on how to assign students will let the board get back to other issues.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

As chairperson of the Pinellas School Board, Nancy Bostock keeps a record of topics for upcoming board workshops.

She calls it the list of things "we've talked about talking about."

Fewer and fewer issues have risen to the talking stage in recent months, thanks to the board's extended debate over a new student assignment plan. Now, as board members look ahead to a pivotal meeting Tuesday, many are saying it's time for them to approve the plan or set it aside.

"Please vote for the assignment plan," Margaret Adams, a district literacy specialist, pleaded in an e-mail Friday to the board. She echoed others, adding: "We need to be moving forward with other issues."

The plan would return Pinellas to a system of neighborhood schools after a five-year experiment that allowed families to choose schools. It also would eliminate race as a factor in school admissions for the first time in more than 35 years.

Board members have scheduled a workshop and a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the plan, and a final vote is possible. But disagreements over how to admit students at magnet and fundamental schools threaten to delay the vote.

If that happens, superintendent Clayton Wilcox says the district may not be able to implement the plan in time for the 2008-09 school year.

Whatever the outcome Tuesday, board members soon should start to see some daylight on the calendar. Among the topics bidding for their attention:

- The graduation rate, which stands at 68 percent overall and a worst-in-Florida 43 percent for black students. Both rates are about 20 percentage points below Hillsborough County's.

- A budget that probably will need to be cut again this year because of declining tax collections by the state. Compared to past years, little will be left to cover teacher raises and projected increases in health insurance and utility costs.

- A range of issues that reach straight into the classroom, including high school and middle school reform.

- A referendum on the Jan. 29 ballot that asks voters to renew a special property tax to supplement teacher raises and enhance reading, music, art and technology programs. The board can't promote the tax as a group, but individual board members can, and their focus on the assignment plan has kept some from doing that.

If the tax were to fail, district budget officials already have a chart showing the impact of losing more than $30-million a year in revenue. They call it "the Titanic model."

It's not as bad as it seems, said Bostock, arguing that district staffers have been pressing ahead on issues as the board concentrates on the plan.

"We're not not doing these things," she said. "It's just not what's at the top of the agenda or all over TV right now. But the board needs to get back and look at where we're going."

Said board member Carol Cook: "It sounds like we're ignorant to what's going on in the system and we're not. But we're not as informed as we should be."

A number of other issues top Bostock's list of workshop topics.

One is the district's new Centers of Excellence initiative, which would allow students to earn high school and college credit while also getting industry certification in a trade. The centers would start coming on line next year and every Pinellas high school would have one by 2010.

It's one of the cornerstones of the district's high school reform effort, but it has been awhile since board members have had an update.

When it comes to boosting the graduation rate, Cook said, "I'm really hanging a whole lot of hope on the Centers of Excellence."

Yet she added: "I don't think we're aware of what is going on."

Another issue: high school-age special education students. Bostock said those students currently are placed on a track to receive special diplomas or they are mainstreamed. Board members will examine whether there are other, "more flexible" ways to serve them, she said.

They also plan to look at the district's school cleaning and maintenance staff, which is having to cover more ground because of personnel cuts.

In addition, Bostock said the board needs to return to more regular reviews of classroom initiatives that are touted as ways to boost achievement but sometimes don't work.

After the assignment plan is done, she said, "That's really what I look forward to getting back to."

The workshop list also includes middle school reform, a high priority for board member Janet Clark, a former middle school teacher.

Clark said the district needs to re-examine the structure of its middle schools. She said students are nurtured in elementary school and many adjust poorly to the increased responsibility of middle school, going from one teacher to six. The effects spill into high school and are especially jarring for students with mental and emotional disabilities, Clark said.

"Until we solve that problem," she said, "we're not going to make any headway with graduation rates."

Board member Mary Brown blamed the low graduation rates, announced earlier this month, on the board failing to hold Wilcox accountable or give him clear direction.

"As a board," she said, "we haven't done our job - all of us."

Brown maintains she will vote against the assignment plan, saying it does little to preserve racial diversity in schools and leaves too many details for district staff to resolve later.

"It's like buying a house and letting the banker say, 'You go ahead and sign on the dotted line and I'll tell you the interest rate later,' " said Brown, who argues companies interested in diversity will shun the county if the plan goes forward as written.

"The economic impact to Pinellas County, I think, will be devastating."

She and others agreed that, even if the plan is approved, the board will continue to deal with related issues, such as how to get resources to schools that quickly will become predominantly poor and black.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, said the board would do well to revisit the district's 7:05 a.m. high school start time, which he says is too early; its attendance policies, which he contends don't hold students accountable; and its end-of-day lunch periods, which he says leave kids too hungry to concentrate.

"I see those as self-inflicted wounds" and a drag on graduation rates, he said.

"We need to focus on some of the other things that we're here to do," said Cook, who would like some closure on the plan.

"It's enough," she said. "I'm ready to move on."

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


If you go

The Pinellas School Board will hold a workshop to discuss the student assignment plan from 1:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Tuesday. If board members agree to take a final vote on the plan, they would do so at a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. the same day. The public is invited to speak at the special meeting, but not the workshop. Both meetings are at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW, Largo.