Pinellas approves school closures
[Members of the public listen to Cathy Houck, a teachers assistant at Palm Harbor Elementary, during the hearing. James Borchuck, Times]
Updated: 4:20 p.m.
The Pinellas School Board voted moments ago to close seven schools and revoke busing privileges for thousands of students.
The decision comes after months of controversy as the school district tries to keep pace with worsening budget news out of Tallahassee. When the district first proposed closing schools in November, the projected shortfall for next year was about $40-million. The district now must make between $60-million and $80-million in spending cuts.
By a vote of 7-0, the board voted to close Gulf Beaches, Kings Highway, North Ward, Palm Harbor and Rio Vista elementaries, plus Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools. Southside’s program will move to Madeira Beach Middle and Coachman will move to Kennedy Middle. Clearview Avenue Elementary will close as previously planned.
Supporters of Gulf Beaches, Palm Harbor and Southside asked the board for another year to figure out ways to keep their schools open. Gulf Beaches supporters suggested turning the school into a fundamental school or a charter school. Parents from Palm Harbor Elementary suggested changing their school to a fundamental program, which would eliminate busing costs there. Southside supporters suggested their small school would serve as a good pilot for the district’s school-based management initiative.
But the board opted to approve the closings as previously proposed.
“This is not a pleasant chore,” board member Mary Brown said. “But when you come on the board you don’t do nice, pleasant things all the time.”
The board also voted to revoke busing for students who next year remain enrolled in schools outside their zone. The vote affects about 17,000 students who last year elected to remain in schools they got into under the old choice plan, rather than move to their new zoned school. Previously, the board contemplated forcing all of these so-called “grandfathered” students into their zoned schools next year. But the board backed off after hundreds of parents complained. The compromise: They can stay in their existing schools, but the district won’t provide bus service.
The elementary school closings will save an estimated $4.3-million and the middle school closings about $1.9-million. Revoking bus service for grandfathered students will save about $7-million.
The district will continue to the cut the budget through the spring. Among the proposals so far: Reduce school budgets across the board, improve the bidding process to lower the cost of building and renovating schools, cut positions in the transportation department, get rid of leased portable classrooms and negotiate a better health insurance plan.
Earlier in the day, Pinellas school officials released a map that shows possible new zone boundaries for elementary schools (Download elemmap.pdf) next year. Another map showing changes to middle school (Download midskulmap.pdf) zone boundaries also is available.
Thomas C. Tobin, Times Education Reporter
[Above photo: James Carroll speaks on behalf of Gulf Beaches Elementary to members of the school board during the public hearing. James Borchuck, Times]