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    Final mass student transfer met with loud parental anger


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

    LARGO -- After hearing from more than a dozen angry parents and facing a packed audience, the School Board unanimously approved Superintendent Howard Hinesley's recommendations to transfer 2,657 students next year.

    It's the last time the Pinellas district will have to order mass student transfers to meet court-ordered race ratios. But for Walsingham Elementary parent Anita Bale, it didn't matter whether Tuesday was the first or last time the school district had to uproot students. She simply won't send her son.

    "You're not going to meet your quota with our children," Bale said.

    Other parents shouted at board members after the vote. Some accused them of not caring about kids. Some said they would take their frustrations to the voting booth in two years. One man had to be escorted out when he wouldn't stop yelling.

    Every two years since 1971, the School Board has selected a new group of white students to bus to neighborhoods where schools have historically had trouble attracting enough white students. The district has settled the federal lawsuit that led to ratios, but one last "rotation" was required.

    Even though mass rotations are over, ratios will be in place through 2006-07. Through that school year, the district still might have to reassign small groups of students to keep ratios in check.

    Of those being transferred next year, 1,320 are white students being sent to southern Pinellas and 775 are white students who have been rotated the past two years and now can return to their home schools. About 200 black students are being moved to meet ratios.

    After listening to parent protests the past two months, Hinesley recommended that 125 students previously slated to leave Sawgrass Lake Elementary School be allowed to stay. He also said that 97 students previously slated to leave Skycrest Elementary to make way for dozens of students who speak English as a second language can stay. Even though no one has to leave, Skycrest still will gain about 60 students.

    About half of the two dozen speakers Tuesday night thanked Hinesley for letting students stay at Skycrest.

    Hinesley said he was able to be flexible with Sawgrass Lake and Skycrest because the issue at those schools was overcrowding, not ratios. But he said he has no choice but to comply with the court order -- and couldn't think of another group that should be chosen for Campbell Park Elementary instead of Walsingham Elementary.

    "I frankly could not come up with another option," Hinesley said.

    That didn't satisfy Walsingham parents, who say they will send their children to private school or home school but not Campbell Park. They worry about long bus rides, crime and plans to renovate Campbell Park next year, which will mean their children will move twice in several months.

    "Children are not pawns to be moved around," said Catherine Geis, after her son and a dozen other children stood and recited a pledge to become good citizens.

    Walsingham parents also feel that they are being penalized as no rotated group has ever been penalized before.

    The district is going to let parents choose their children's schools in 2003, but some students will be able to continue to attend the elementary, middle and high schools they were zoned to attend. To be eligible for that privilege, the student has to be enrolled in public schools by the last day of school this year, and his family can't move to a new home.

    In the past, about 30 percent of families affected by the zoning changes tried to avoid it by moving or leaving public schools for two years. But this year, if a family moves or leaves the district, the family can't take advantage of the privilege known as "extended grandfathering."

    That, some parents said, is not fair. School Board member Linda Lerner agreed. She said students who leave the district to avoid the rotation should at least be allowed to come back to the school they left, even if they can't also continue to their previously zoned middle and high school.

    Other board members hesitated to get into that debate again, especially knowing that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has objected.

    "I wish we could make it possible for everybody to get what they want," said board member Max Gessner. "As far as reopening negotiations on this, I am not interested."

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