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New elementary to serve K-5

Those who vigorously advocated a different plan for the Tampa Palms school express deep dismay over the decision.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Despite a two-year effort by dozens of parents, Hillsborough School Board members decided Tuesday night to make an elementary school opening next fall in New Tampa a school with grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

The action was a blow to parents who have raised thousands of dollars, created a Web site and circulated petitions in the Tampa Palms housing development, rounding up support for an unusual and controversial proposal to make the new school a second campus of Tampa Palms Elementary. They wanted older students assigned to the new school and younger students at the existing school.

Worried that two schools would divide the community, parents had even offered to raise more than $20,000 to buy two used school buses to make their plan work.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said parent Michelle Fountain after the unanimous vote. "I think they missed an opportunity to innovate. I think it's not only the school's loss, but the district's loss."

Some parents said they may pull their children out of Tampa Palms Elementary, or possibly start a charter school.

Board members accepted Superintendent Earl Lennard's recommendation to house grades kindergarten through fifth at the new school west of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, which they also named Lawton Chiles Elementary School, after the late governor. Sixth-graders will attend there the first year to relieve overcrowding at Benito Middle School until a new middle school opens in Tampa Palms in 2002.

The school will ease crowding at Tampa Palms, Pizzo and Clark elementaries.

Board members said they did not believe it was in the best interest of the students or the district to split grades between the schools because of transportation and safety issues.

Sharon Danaher said she was concerned the proposal would create additional busing problems, especially considering the area's existing traffic problems.

"I think it would cause more problems than not," she said.

Carol Kurdell said she couldn't support split grades because it would increase the number of times children would have to switch schools. That was one of the reasons the district got away from separate sixth- and seventh-grade schools in the past.

Their action ended the well organized and financed effort by some parents -- they call themselves One Community, One School -- to persuade the district to embrace the unusual split-grade concept, currently in use at one other pair of Hillsborough County schools.

Several parents and school board members said they hope the community dissension will now end and both sides will work together to make the new school as successful as Tampa Palms Elementary.

"My hope is . . . that the community begins to heal," said board Chairwoman Carolyn Bricklemyer.

Several parents questioned whether the district gave their proposal any consideration at all. Lennard said the district carefully considered it.

"This recommendation has not come easy," Lennard said just before the vote was taken. "As much as I would like to come out for something new and different and precedent setting . . . I feel very strongly the K-5 configuration is in the best interest of the students."

Parent Karen Blumenthal, who encouraged the district to make its decision based on safety and academic reasons, said she is glad a decision has finally been made.

"I hope the community can now come together," she said.

- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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