Questions, answers about Pinellas cuts, school closings
Updated 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 12
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Q: What is happening?
A: Faced with declining enrollment and a projected budget shortfall of $63-million to $68-million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Pinellas School Board has approved several major changes that will save money but affect thousands of families. Effective next year, the district has:
* Closed five elementary schools -- Gulf Beaches in St. Pete Beach; Kings Highway and North Ward in Clearwater; Rio Vista in St. Petersburg; and Palm Harbor Elementary.
* Merged four middle schools into two. Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools will move to larger facilities. Southside will be "consolidated" with Madeira Beach Middle School and Coachman with Kennedy Middle. The Madeira campus will be a K-8 fundamental school that includes Madeira Beach Elementary.
* Revoked bus service for about 17,000 elementary students who don't attend their zoned schools.
* Redrawn middle school zones as Kennedy and Madeira Beach will cease to be zoned schools. The change will have a domino effect across the county, altering middle school options for hundreds of students entering sixth grade next year.
* Redrawn the school zone map for elementary schools to account for the closings.
Q: Is this final?
A: Yes. School Board members voted Tuesday, Jan. 13, to close the elementary schools, merge the middle schools and revoke busing for non-zone students. They also approved a new zone map for middle schools. The board approved a new elementary zone map on Feb. 10.
Q: Why the rush?
A: The district says it needed to make the changes in time for the 2009-10 application period for special programs such as magnet and fundamental schools. The application period, which kicks off the student assignment process, began Jan. 26 and ends Feb. 16. The budget cutting process could have started earlier, but the previous School Board decided it was best for the newly elected board to make key decisions on the new budget. The new board was elected Nov. 4 and was not seated until Nov. 18. Two hours after they were sworn in, Superintendent Julie Janssen proposed the school closings and other measures.
Q: Why is the district redrawing zones? Isn't that disruptive?
A: It is, but the district says it has to be done to account for the school closings. Parents have implored the board for a school system that offers more stability. Many have said all the changes prevent them from knowing where their kids were going to go to school year to year. But district officials say they can offer no guarantees in an era when declining enrollment and state budget cuts will force the district to make periodic adjustments.
Q: Why is the district revoking bus service for some students?
A: When the board devised a new system of zoned schools last year, replacing the old choice system, it allowed thousands of students to finish out at their old choice schools. These so-called "nonzone" or "grandfathered" students also got bus service, and their siblings could join them when it came time for them to go to school. A year later, amid a horrible financial climate, those arrangements have been deemed unaffordable. Board members initially considered revoking grandfathering for all nonzone elementary students and forcing them into their zoned schools to save money on busing. But after hundreds of parent complaints, they agreed to a compromise: Nonzone elementary students - about 17,000 in all - could remain in their schools but the district no longer will provide bus service.
Q: Why is the district only revoking busing for elementary school kids? Why don't they do it for middle and high school students too?
A: The main reason is that the bulk of the savings are in elementary schools, which have about 17,000 nonzone students compared to 3,900 in middle schools and 6,700 in high schools. Also, students are in elementary school longer than the other levels, which translates to more costs. The board decided to retain grandfathering at middle schools because it won't be an issue after next year when the last class of grandfathered students cycles into high school. As for high schools, board members were reluctant to disrupt grandfathered students who had formed strong ties to their schools through sports teams, clubs and other activities. Not all secondary school students are untouched, however. On Jan. 13, 2009, the board voted to provide only arterial bus service for high school students not attending their zoned schools. The same will hold true for students at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School and Osceola Fundamental High School.
Q: How do all these changes save money?
A: The district says it will save $4.26-million in operating costs by closing the five elementaries and $1.95-million by merging the four middle schools. It also will save about $7-million in busing costs by revoking transportation to grandfathered students. That's a total of about $13-million - just a start toward the total amount that needs to be cut.
Q: Is the district looking at other places to cut besides closing schools?
A: Yes. Superintendent Julie Janssen is looking at cuts in several areas. Among them: across-the-board cuts in individual schools, a more affordable health plan for district employees, furloughs for district employees, reductions in leased portable classrooms, cuts in the number of drivers and supervisors in the transportation department, tightening constructon procedures and reducing high school sports programs.
Q: All but one of the seven schools being closed or merged received A grades from the state. Why would the district close these schools?
A: District officials say the budget shortfall and declining enrollment have put them in the position of having to close schools using factors that they say outweigh a school's grade. Those factors include the age and size of the school, the per-student cost to operate the school, the projected costs to maintain the school and the proximity of empty seats that could accommodate students from closed schools. District officials also argue that the students who contributed to the A grade at their soon-to-be-closed school will do the same for their new school.
Q: Why is the district dealing with declining enrollment by closing schools? Why not just reduce the number of portable classrooms?
A: In fact, the district is getting rid of 319 of its 894 portables next year and will cut more as enrollment continues to drop. Portables help the district adjust school capacities based on where families with children live in Pinellas County. The district's enrollment is declining, but the losses of students are scattered across the county so it's difficult to simply remove portables in big clusters. The class size amendment, with its strict limits on how many children can be in a classroom, also limits the district's flexibility on portables.
Q: These closings and re-zonings create uncertainty for families. Will it all end after this year?
A: Probably not. District officials now say that declining enrollment will prompt several re-zonings in the next few years. The district says it has lost 10,000 students since 2003 and plans to lose an additional 10,000 by 2013. As that happens, the district says it will be forced to "right size" by closing more schools, which leads to zones having to be redrawn. At some point, the district says it may have to look at closing a high school.
Q: How will the proposed middle school mergers work?
A: Generally, students at Coachman Fundamental Middle will end up at Kennedy Middle. Students at Southside Fundamental Middle will be asked to indicate whether they want to be enrolled at Madeira Beach Middle or Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle, which is closer for many Southside families. As of this writing (Feb. 12, 2009) it is unclear whether Marshall has enough space for all Southside students who will want to go there. The district is surveying Southside families to get an idea where they want to go, and will proceed from there. Any student who didn't get in at Marshall would have a seat at Madeira. Initially, the staffs at Coachman and Southside will be assigned to their respective receiving schools, and the staffs at the receiving schools will stay put until it is clear how many students the newly "consolidated" schools will have. If there are more teachers and support staff than are needed at a school, the new principals will conduct interviews and select a staff. Those not selected could transfer to other schools using rules set out in union contracts. For each merger, committees composed of parents, teachers, administrators and other interested parties will decide other issues, such as names and operational details for the new schools. Teachers will likely fare better than support staff such as plant operators and cafeteria workers. That's because the district needs as many teachers as it can get to comply with the class size amendment. The district says it will try to find other jobs for support staff, but the prospects are not as good.
Q: How will my middle school student be affected by this plan?
A: Some middle school students have been rezoned to different schools. That's because the Coachman/Kennedy and Southside/Madeira Beach "consolidations" triggered a redrawing of the middle school boundaries across the county. For example, some students slated to attend sixth grade at Madeira Beach Middle next year were rezoned to Azalea Middle, Osceola Middle or Seminole Middle, depending on where they live. The district created space at those schools by shifting the boundaries in places to match kids with empty seats. So, some kids in the Azalea zone will end up next year in the John Hopkins and Tyrone middle school zones. Similarly, some kids in the current Osceola zone have been reassigned to Largo and Pinellas Park middle schools. In the northern end of the county, the Coachman/Kennedy merger triggered a similar chain reaction of boundary line changes. Students have the option of accepting the new assignment or staying in their current school. To see the zone maps, consult Useful Links below.
New middle school zone map, approved Jan. 13, 2009
New elementary school zone map, approved Feb. 10, 2009
NOTE: Can't tell what your school is from the zone map? Use the district's new Zoned School Locator and type in your address. Still confused? Call the student assignment office at (727) 588-6210.
Jan. 13, 2009, power point given to School Board.
Searchable video of the School Board's Dec. 9 public hearing. (Go to item 2 under "Nonconsent" portion of the agenda.)
Dec. 9 power point given to School Board.
Latest budget update, distributed Friday, Dec. 6.
Dec. 2 power point given to School Board.
Nov. 18 power point presentation given to School Board.
A summary of this year's budget.
A comparison of how Pinellas stacks up to other large Florida counties in several spending categories (takes awhile to download)