By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000
CLEARWATER -- About 20 parents told Pinellas School Board members Thursday that they strongly support the most controversial provision in the district's plan to let parents choose their children's schools.
The parents, who live in neighborhoods north of Ulmerton Road, said they bought their houses near the schools they want their children to attend.
They pleaded with board members to approve a provision in the choice proposal that would let all students enrolled in the 2002-03 school year complete elementary, middle and high school within their current attendance zones.
In other words, parents who attended the three-hour Clearwater High School meeting said they don't want their children to have to participate in the new system when it starts in fall 2003. They said they want their children's school tracks guaranteed. These parents want something that is not guaranteed in the current system, in which students are assigned to schools primarily (but not always) based on their address. Right now, the district tells parents which school their children must attend and can change school boundary lines any time.
"I am somewhat appalled that my child could be put in a lottery and end up in a school from Tarpon Springs to Dunedin," said Julie Phillips, who lives in Palm Harbor. About 90 people attended Thursday. About two dozen spoke. For the most part, they complained that the district has not done a good job of explaining the plan to the public. They asked questions about how much the plan will cost and how the district will handle what is sure to be a more complicated busing system.
Some said that if board members were really listening to parents, they would not adopt any kind of choice plan. The exchange grew testy at times, with parents shouting at board members who were trying to answer questions.
"It should have been called the lottery plan, not the choice plan," said Nancy Marchetta, who lives in Palm Harbor. The district is moving toward choice because the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently settled a 1964 lawsuit that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation and race ratios in school. Both sides say that in a county where most black and white families live apart, letting parents pick schools is the best hope for maintaining integration. Under the proposal, the district would be divided into attendance areas, families would select their favorite schools in their area and a computer would process the applications. African-American student enrollment in each school would be capped at 42 percent, but race ratios could end in 2007.
Certain students will get preference to attend their first-choice school, such as those who live close by or those with older siblings already enrolled.
Thursday was the district's final public hearing, though written input will be collected through Sept. 29. Then, the School Board will hold several workshops, and Superintendent Howard Hinesley will present a recommended proposal Oct. 17. The School Board will vote Oct. 24.
Only a few parents said they think the choice plan has potential -- and those were primarily African-American parents who attended all-black schools or were bused, and white parents whose children have been bused far from home.
"This plan gives my child a chance to attend Palm Harbor University High School although we cannot afford the $300,000 home it would take to be zoned to that school," said Remy Scott, whose child is zoned to attend Dunedin High. "I believe the whole county should have the opportunity to attend the best school, not just north Pinellas County. This plan gives people hope."
For information about the federal court order and the choice plan, visit the district's Web site at http://www.pinellas.k12.fl.us. Feedback can be sent to Jim Madden by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (727) 588-5181 or by fax at (727) 588-6202.