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Pinellas district officials knew of early release day since March, memo indicates

Pinellas school district officials have known since at least March that schools will close one hour early every Wednesday next year, but parents didn’t find out until a few weeks ago and were told their questions and concerns were too late to make any changes because of contract negotiations.

Parents have been pummeling the Pinellas County School Board with angry e-mails and phone calls this week, dismayed to find out that schools will close one hour early on Wednesdays beginning in August to give teachers more planning time. It’s a change that will require some families to rearrange work schedules or child care, and both teachers and parents are raising concerns about the effect the weekly disruption will have on art, music, gifted classes and class time.

The news first broke May 8 that the teachers union and the school district had come to an agreement on next year’s contract. One of the provisions: an early release every Wednesday to allow teachers some planning time.

The final vote came on May 27. In the weeks between the first announcement and the final vote, concerns started bubbling up slowly from parents. But only in the final days before the May 27 vote, when parents began circulating e-mails among themselves, did it sink in that the issue was no longer a matter of debate; it was a reality.

But the school district had known about it for months.

According to a memo obtained by the St. Petersburg Times from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Michael Burke, the School Board’s route and safety auditor, gave the MPO’s Technical Coordinating Committee, an advisory board of transportation experts, a heads up about the coming change much earlier. The memo reads that “at the March 27th TCC meeting, Mike Burke of the Pinellas County School Board, said that he would provide information to be forwarded to the TCC members regarding the 2009-2010 school bell times that will be in effect due to the new Wednesday schedule.”

An attachment on the memo includes a school bell schedule that closely mirrors the final schedule approved May 27, with the one-hour early release every Wednesday.

Two School Board members, Carol Cook and Janet Clark, told the Times they were not aware of this schedule change until late April or early May.

Cook said superintendent Julie Janssen announced at an executive board meeting that contract negotiations with the teachers union were progressing and that the union wanted to explore closing schools early on Wednesday to give teachers planning time.

“I didn’t realize that by saying, 'Yes, go ahead and explore it,' that it was  a done deal,” Cook said. “I was thinking at that point they would vet the whole thing.”

No letters were sent home to parents. The county’s phone bank was never used to alert the parents.
As parents got wind of the idea, a mass e-mail went out alerting them of the coming vote and raising questions about the impact on teaching time and family schedules. The parent e-mail also raised questions about how strongly teachers felt about it. Some 3,000 of them didn’t even vote on the issue, and of those who did, the vote was 45 percent against and 55 percent in favor.

“Did the majority (of teachers) vote for it?” Cook said. “I’m coming up with 38 percent who even bothered to vote for it, or I could say 62 percent did not vote for it.”

Sharon Wynne, Times staff writer

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:24am]


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