Pinellas approves middle, high school zoning changes
After lengthy debate, the Pinellas County School Board voted 7-0 this afternoon to approve zoning changes that will affect about 850 middle and high school students.
The unanimous vote for overall approval came after a separate vote on zoning changes affecting Palm Harbor University, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs high schools. The board voted 6-1 in favor of that piece, with Linda Lerner voting no.
"I see this map as a move towards common sense," said board member Janet Clark, referring to the new zoning lines overall.
A handful of parents spoke out against two parts of the proposal: A late change that moved 20-something incoming ninth graders from the Palm Harbor University High zone into the Dunedin High zone, and the movement of a piece of the Dunedin Highland Middle zone into the Safety Harbor Middle zone.
The former was not part of the district's original proposal. And parents in that area were not notified about the change until Feb. 18, two days before the end of the application period for magnet, fundamental and other school choice programs.
"We were treated very unfairly," said Maria Fernandez, who has an eighth grader now zoned for Dunedin High and a tenth grader attending Palm Harbor University High.
"This gave us literally 48 hours to sign up for various programs, which we did not get into," said Gregg Feingold, whose daughter, an eighth grader at Palm Harbor Middle, is now zoned for Dunedin High.
Several board members acknowledged the district made a mistake with the late notice. Lerner said that issue and continued overcrowding at Palm Harbor University High gave her pause.
The board added the Palm Harbor-to-Dunedin piece at the same time it added another section of the Tarpon Springs High zone to the Palm Harbor zone. The net change next year: 73 more incoming ninth graders at Palm Harbor, which already has 39 portables.
Lerner said the board should postpone the changes until it's more clear what impact a slew of new magnet programs will have on capacity.
"There are so many unknowns here," she said.
The board voted 4-3 to have a separate vote on the Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs zone changes. But the majority stuck with Superintendent Julie Janssen's recommendation.
Board member Peggy O'Shea noted if the board voted no now, it would affect the parents who had been told they were moving from Tarpon Springs High to Palm Harbor University High.
"You're creating a bigger problem than you're trying to solve," she said.
Changing now "gives credence to the notion that often we're flip flopping," said board member Lew Williams.
Parents from Safety Harbor Middle also made their position clear today, as they had at two listening sessions the district held to solicit public feedback.
Initially, the district proposed a three-way zoning swap between Safety Harbor Middle, Palm Harbor Middle and Dunedin Highland Middle. But after Safety Harbor parents rallied, the district scaled back that plan and instead proposed that a single chunk on the east side of Dunedin Highland’s zone be moved into Safety Harbor’s, bringing up to 65 sixth-graders with it this fall.
District officials said the change was necessary because Dunedin Highland needs to accommodate a growing gifted program and is more crowded than Safety Harbor Middle. But Safety Harbor parents continued to mount a vigorous campaign, sending petitions to the board and networking on Facebook.
As he began his remarks, parent Richard Ireland unfurled a petition with 1,000 signatures in front of the board table.
"We want you to stop the constant whipsaw back and forth" with frequent zoning changes, he said.
If the proposal is approved, "you will create a middle school that will be the largest middle school in the county," said parent Lorrie Kohli.
District officials disputed many of the parents' claims about crowding at Safety Harbor. And board chair Carol Cook said postponing the decision will create more problems next year. "This is something that has to be done," she said.
All in all, the zoning changes affect five of 15 high schools and 11 middle schools.
The school board backed away from proposed elementary school zoning changes. The district initially proposed tweaking 20 elementary zones, affecting about 400 incoming kindergarten students. But Superintendent Julie Janssen said at last week’s workshop that it would be better to postpone those changes now and do a bigger, more comprehensive zoning next year.