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Pinellas School Board approves new student plan

The "close-to-home'' assignment plan will start next school year.

Published December 19, 2007


[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times]
FOR THE PLAN: School Board chairwoman Nancy Bostock, who voted for the plan, said it offers more certainty for parents but still allows choices.

[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times]
AGAINST THE PLAN: School Board member Janet Clark, who voted against the plan, complained: "We have bowed to every group that has come before us."

LARGO -- The Pinellas School Board on Tuesday officially stepped away from a decadeslong commitment to integration, voting 5-2 on a plan that will guarantee all students a "close-to-home" school.

The decision, a landmark moment in a saga that began with a 1964 federal lawsuit, creates a system that is all but blind to students' race.

The only exception is a pledge that the district will try hard to create diversity where it can -- largely through special programs such as magnet and fundamental schools, which tend to draw a racially diverse mix of students.

The early evening vote followed more than two years of discussion, first by a citizen task force, then by superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his staff and finally by the School Board, which aired the plan in several public hearings this summer and fall. It also came after fears last week that the plan might be delayed a year because of late-breaking disagreements over how to admit students to magnet and fundamental schools. The board came to a consensus on that issue at workshop earlier Tuesday.

Now comes a busy winter holiday for district staffers, who will try to get the plan implemented in time for the 2008-09 school year. That will mean designing a whole new enrollment process by February.

The School Board, stalled by disagreements over final details of the plan, delayed the final vote a month. But board member Linda Lerner called it a "difficult and responsible process" that made the plan better.

One of the staff's first tasks will be to draw zones around each school. Since August, when the district circulated preliminary color maps of how those zones might look, parents have been hungry for official word on where their close-to-home schools will be.

"Thank goodness," said Clearwater parent Teresa Holley when told of the final vote. "I just didn't want to listen to it for another year."

Holley hopes her 4-year-old daughter, Alicia, will enter kindergarten next year at Plumb Elementary, a quarter mile from her home.

"It will be easier to be involved with the school," she said. "(Alicia) will go to school with kids from the neighborhood. To me, it really will help develop more of a sense of community."

From the day Wilcox handed his version of the plan to School Board members, they began putting their own mark on it. Making the debate more difficult was the fact that nearly 70 percent of elementary students were in schools well outside their neighborhoods that would not be their new close-to-home schools. The choice plan, a 4-year-old system designed to ease the district away from busing, had worked almost too well.

Wilcox suggested a clean break with the past, proposing that most students immediately transfer from their existing schools to their new close-to-home schools. But board members, confronted with hundreds of angry e-mails, inserted a generous "grandfathering" provision that allows all students to finish out at their current schools.

Wilcox also pushed to withhold bus service from families who wanted to stay in their current schools, saying it might hasten the change to the new plan. But board members said all grandfathered students should receive transportation as well.

The superintendent asked that the board consider forcing younger siblings into close-to-home schools, again to hasten the transition. But board members rejected that as well.

One result is that the district will end up spending $3-million to $5-million more on busing next year, a long way from the savings of $5-million or more originally projected. Under the new plan, the savings would not come for three or four years, after most of the grandfathered students cycle through and a true system of neighborhood schools takes hold.

Did board members simply compromise and keep faith with parents? Or did they cave to political pressure?

That was a central question as the board took its final vote in a special meeting that lasted only 34 minutes.

"We have bowed to every group that has come before us," complained board member Janet Clark, who voted against the plan.

She joined Mary Brown, who said the plan fails to maintain diversity and concentrates too many struggling students into too few schools. The board will meet soon to discuss how to flood those schools with more resources, but it may mean taking money away from other schools.

Gareth Whitehurst, a former School Board member who chaired the citizen task force, agreed with Clark, saying only high school students should have been grandfathered.

"It's not a clean plan," he said. "Either the plan is fair to everybody, or it will be fair to nobody."

Others said the plan turned out fine. They noted that it calls for an annual review by the board, the superintendent and an advisory board that focuses on black student achievement.

"This is going to give us a longer transition and a longer time before we realize some of the cost savings," said board member Peggy O'Shea. "But it also gives families ... greater options and less of a disruption for the first few years, which is what the community has asked for."

Said board member Jane Gallucci: "This plan is a plan for 106,000 students; this is a plan for students south county to north county. Is it perfect? No. I don't think anything in this lifetime is perfect."

Board member Nancy Bostock said the plan offered parents the certainty of a close-to-home school with the option to seek out other schools. She also made reference to the legal milestone at hand.

"This will be the first time in over 35 years of federal supervision of this school district that we truly have local control," Bostock said, "and I think that in and of itself is a major accomplishment and a worthy goal of this long process."

Fred Ulrich, principal at Largo Middle School, said the plan sets up a system where schools feed more neatly into each other from level to level.

Under the choice plan, he said, "we had students coming here from 20 to 25 elementary schools." The new plan reduces that to three, allowing him to build more continuity with elementary schools.

"I'm pretty excited about that part," Ulrich said. "It makes a nice, seamless K-12 program."

To clear the way for a final vote, board members met in a workshop earlier Tuesday where a majority said all magnet and fundamental elementary schools should continue to draw students using a countywide application process. Disagreements over the issue had threatened to delay the plan a year.

The issue was resolved after district administrators showed that students near those schools would have access to a variety of schools close to home.

[Last modified December 19, 2007, 00:48:32]

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