A weekend interview with ...
... Peggy O'Shea, chairwoman of the Pinellas School Board. The Pinellas board voted unanimously earlier this week to close seven elementary schools and reassign thousands of students. O'Shea spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the vote, the rationale behind it and the expected outcomes.
How hard is it for you to be making these decisions regarding the boundaries and the school closures?
They're really two separate issues. The school closures is tough. You get parents who are so involved in their school and it's part of the community they live in. You hate to take that away. We looked at all kinds of opportunities to avoid that. But the bottom line came when we looked at the budget and the budget projections and the cuts coming from the state. It just became impossible. We haven't even reached all the budget cuts we have to make yet. Coupled with the fact that we have less students and we're projected to continue to have less students over the next few years, which means we don't need as many schools with less kids. So for efficiency -- with or without the budget implications, there's a certain efficiency as guardians of the taxpayers' money that we need to take into account.
Some of the parents pointed out you were closing down schools that are well regarded and have strong community support, whereas some other schools might not have had that same level of success. How do you pick which schools you must close?
Our student assignment department looked at it in terms of where kids are and where we have other schools nearby to put them in. We looked from a financial perspective the cost of running those buildings. Risk management -- what it costs to insure those buildings. What our maintenance costs are. Those kinds of things. Because the ones we closed are all small schools that had under 400 students. Whereas when you see newer elementary schools in the state of Florida today, they're built to house 750-800 kids. That's what the state requires you build from now on. So even look at some of them and say, Maybe you could build a larger school on them. Some of the sites aren't large enough, because they're older, smaller areas built several years ago. Some of them in the early 1900s, one of them in the 1950s. That was the age range of the schools we were looking at.
So it didn't have as much to do with whether the school was an A school or whether it had a strong PTA?
No. Because there are a lot of schools with strong PTAs. And that's wonderful. I mean, they're a great asset to the kids and the school. But when it comes down to it, if we're trying to revamp our transportation and our zones, we've got to look at where the children are and where our schools are and how to best accommodate that need. I know, a lot of people said, How can you close an A school? And those same people generally don't like the rating system. But, for what it's worth, that is a question. Why would we do that? And again, it was other factors that came into it. You know. Other people would say, If you just close the schools that aren't high rated you're just hiding the problem. So there's two sides to it, as far as the public opinion went.
How do you soothe some of the raw emotions that came out during these hearings?
Well, a couple of things. First of all, to be open and honest about what is going on. That's the first thing we have to do. Communicate what their future options are. And we worked through some of that [Tuesday] with the grandfathering issue. The school closing folks, they had a preliminary map of the new zones, so they can get an idea of where they will go to school. But it's a draft. It's not final yet. ...
The other thing I will say in regard to the parents, even though they were fighting for their child, their school, that's understandable. They're good parents doing what they feel is best. They have all been so understanding of the budget implications and what we're dealing with, every one of them, even though they didn't like the decision, how it affected them. They were extremely understanding. It was unbelievable. They realized the state's cuts have been huge and dramatic, and the projections coming out of Tallahassee get worse every day. And I told them, keep fighting for what you want. ...
Now that you have made these decisions ... you're going to have to move kids around and save money with transportation. Is that just another headache for you?
Don't forget, part of this problem is the years of choice that we had, where every child was assigned individually based on their choice of schools. And that came about as an agreement with the federal court. ... Those are now over and we can now go back to a different assignment system. What we're moving toward is what we had before choice. ...
The difference between rezoning back then and today is, back then when rezoning had to take place because a school was overcrowded or whatever reason, the whole neighborhood moved together. So the kids moved with their friends. ... Under choice, each child was assigned individually. If a school was full, he got sent to where there was a space. It might be on the other side of the county. And we had to run a bus to the other side of the county for them. After several years of that, kids were scattered all over at the elementary level. It was amazing when you started to look at where they were. This will do a whole lot to bring them closer to home. What we said was we are going to tell everybody, Here's your new zoned school, and this is where you go to school unless you opt for the school you're currently in by a certain date. ...
And you will not provide transportation for that anymore, though?
Right. So we save the transportation, and it will move more kids back into their zoned schools than if we just left everybody without transportation. First of all, some of them may choose to come back because it may be what they want. And we have heard from some people who say, 'I'd rather be closer to home. I'm here because that's where I was put. But I'd really rather have my child closer.' There's a mix out there of who wants to come back and who doesn't. And you're never really sure of what somebody is going to decide until they have to make that choice. ... With the declining enrollment, there will be a little more spaces to play with in some areas. The point is, we're trying to accommodate both those who want to come home and those who want to stay until they finish that level.
Once this is all in place, will this be the end of the closings and the movings for a while?
Well, no. We're still projected to lose another 10,000 students over the next several years. 10,000 students is a lot of school buildings, when you think about it in those terms. Now, we will watch to see where the losses are. They were saying we might have more school closings. What we asked is they try to create these new zones to accommodate future closings, at least for a while, so we don't have to shift everybody again for a long time. That's our ultimate goal, to minimize that and create more stability for the parents.
Years prior to choice, when we were in a high-growth mode, kids got rezoned all the time. And under the court order, the kids in south county were rezoned every two years and moved around. SO, you know, it's for different reasons now. It's a different era. But that rezoning occurs in districts frequently. We're trying to minimize it as much as possible. We don't want to do it, either. It's not something we get up one day and say, 'Hey, let's move everyone around.' So we're trying to get everybody where they need to be and where we have the space to accommodate everybody, minimize the bus routes.
If you're over two miles from the school (you're assigned to) you will get a bus ride. That's state law. But what we find is, if we get people into local schools, even if they still get a bus ... at least it's a shorter route and you're picking up a whole neighborhood at once. You're not sending three or four buses in for three or four different schools and picking up just a handful of kids for each one. That's what choice had created, and the transportation costs were tremendous.
So over time the goal is to become more efficient. Do you think it's something that can be done any time soon? Or is this just an ongoing effort?
We're in the process of doing it now. This isn't something we're saying 'Someday we'll do this.' It's started. What we said [Tuesday] was, rezone all the elementaries, give everyone their new zoned school and let those who want what we call grandfathering go to their schools if they provide their own transportation. We also talked about -- let's say you have a child in third or fourth grade this year, and your zoned school for next year is going to be different and you want to leave them there, that's fine. But let's say you have an incoming child in kindergarten next year or the year after. They don't get to go where the older one is unless the school has the space available. Otherwise, if you want them all together you've got to bring them to the zoned school. That will help shift a lot of folks back into the zoned school and help reduce some of the capacity issues at other schools. And a lot of people will just stay where they are because it's familiar to them and they like that consistency. So that plan is fair to them ... but it also helps move the system back into zones for the local schools.
I wish you luck in this endeavor.
Yeah. It's tough, and there may be other things we have to do along the way. We're still cutting the budget. These are not the only budget cuts. Some people say, 'Why pick on this? Go cut it elsewhere.' We're cutting everywhere. Our projections are $70-million to $80-million we have to cut. So this is a part of it. It's not all of it. We're having a budget workshop coming up and we'll be dealing with other issues.
You're not alone on that front.
No. Unfortunately, it's hitting all the school districts, some a little differently than others. But Pinellas, it impacted us a little more for a couple of reasons. We have less students. And your funding from the state is based on the number of students you have. So if you have less students, you get less money. On top of that, the state this year cut the amount of money per child, and next year they're saying they're going to cut it even more. Sort of a double deduction here. And the reason we have less students is the economy of Florida. ... But also, we're built out. We're not growing. So we were probably going to decline a little bit anyway. And in a few years we'll level out. I don't think this decline will keep going. But some of this was going to hit us because there's no more land in Pinellas. ... It may balance out and give us a more stable number to work with.