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    Busing in Pinellas County to expand

    Keeping with a 1999 agreement, the School Board will provide busing to fundamental school students.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


    LARGO -- Pinellas County School Board members on Tuesday agreed that fundamental school students will have access to school bus service beginning in 2003.

    School Board members supported Superintendent Howard Hinesley's recommendation with a 7-0 vote. The bus service will begin at the same time the district switches to a system that allows all parents to choose which schools their children attend.

    Fundamental school buses will work like buses for magnet school students. That means fundamental students won't get door-to-door service, but buses will be available to pick up students from a central location.

    It will cost about $1.3-million in one-time capital costs, with an additional $649,000 in annual operating costs.

    "It is a fairness issue," said School Board member Linda Lerner. "We have to have access for everybody."

    Board members also agreed to set a public hearing in April to consider allowing fundamental elementary students to wear uniform shorts. In a survey, most elementary parents supported shorts.

    But board members killed a proposal to allow fundamental middle school students to wear shorts, saying shorts would be too distracting. That pleased about 10 parents and teachers, mostly from Coachman Fundamental Middle, who said shorts are not appropriate for a serious learning environment.

    About 3,000 children attend the district's fundamental schools, which emphasize strict discipline and dress codes and active parental involvement. With few exceptions, fundamental parents must provide transportation for their children to attend school, detention and other required events.

    Hinesley and several board members said some parents have never been able to apply for fundamental schools because they don't have cars or their job schedules do not give them enough flexibility to drive their children every day.

    Of 10 speakers, several agreed with Hinesley's argument about fairness.

    But five spoke against busing, saying it is not needed and is not fiscally responsible. Those parents worried that offering bus service would undermine strict fundamental rules and lead to decreased parental involvement in school activities, including meetings, volunteer hours and field trips.

    "Fundamental schools are not for everyone," said Joyce Kepto, a parent at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School. "It's for parents who choose a higher level of parental involvement."

    But board members were told they did not have a choice.

    In an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund reached in December 1999, the School Board promised to offer bus service to magnet and fundamental schools so all students would have equal access. Hinesley and other board members admitted they did not remember until recently that they had made that promise to the Legal Defense Fund long ago.

    School Board member Nancy Bostock, who has a child at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, apologized for voting in favor of the proposal. She said she shares some other parents' concerns that bus service will hurt, not enhance, fundamental schools.

    "My vote today is not an endorsement, but merely a recognition of the board's legal requirement," Bostock said.

    In other news, the School Board raised school lunch prices by a quarter. Lunch prices have not been raised since 1989. Beginning with the 2001-2002 school year, elementary students will pay $1.50, secondary students will pay $1.75 and adults will pay $2.50.

    Breakfast prices also will rise. Students who participate in free- or reduced-price lunch programs will not be affected by the changes.

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