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A weekend interview with parent Theresa L. Casey on the Pinellas County school bell times flap

On June 15, the Pinellas County School Board voted to change school start times, a cost-savings action that included pushing 10 elementary schools to open at 7:35 a.m and 28 to open at 9:20 a.m. — an hour later or an hour earlier than their original 8:35 a.m. opening. When Theresa L. Casey, 49, Palm Harbor mother of a soon-to-be third-grader at Cypress Woods Elementary, heard through the grapevine that her daughter’s school would be opening an hour earlier, she used the web to help her connect with other concerned parents to voice opposition. Parents created a Facebook page, designed an online poll for parents to describe their feelings about the issue, and networked about solutions. This week, the board reversed its decision. Casey composed  this analysis of why the effort succeeded. Reporter Rebecca Catalanello talked with her about the experience and what she learned. This is an edited version of their conversation:

Why was the change of bell times a concern to you personally?

For me personally, the impact to our life is really an impact in quality family time. My husband has a great job, but his hours are very varied. He sometimes doesn’t come in until as late as 8 o’clock or sometimes 9 p.m. The earlier start times was going to affect our time together as a family.

But that wasn’t really what got me — because we could adjust. That wasn’t the issue. The issue for me was that even though my child is young, I’ve kind of been following the bell times issue since I moved to Florida in 1987. And there’s this long history of announcing the bell times after school is out and changing it just about annually. And pretty much that was the setting off of, “This is crazy! Get it together. Give the people in the community more than a year or two with a set schedule.” So, that was really what got me going was, “Oh, no, here we go again. How can you do this to the community yet again?”

Was it the feeling of being left out?

It was a feeling of, yeah, left out. The school board had put up a really awesome online survey that said, “Hey, we’re going to have to make some budget cuts, that’s no secret. Here are some things that we’re considering cutting, please give us your input.”. . . And bell times were not on that list of items that are potentially being cut. So it caught everyone off guard. The principals didn’t know. The PTAs didn’t know. So, there was no opportunity to gather any information from the stakeholders and go back to the board and say, OK, we understand you have to make some changes but why, how come, what else are you cutting?

Now, are you already involved at Cypress Woods?

I’m volunteer every Tuesday. I’ve been volunteering since my daughter was in kindergarten. I go one day a week, sometimes more than that – often more than that. And this year I served as secretary of the PTA and next year I’ll co-chair the yearbook.

So when you got news about the bell times, what was your initial response?

I was in Seminole. I wasn’t even up with by my community (in North Pinellas), so I couldn’t even talk to my peers in person. But I was hearing back from parents of the attendees of the camp my daughter was attending – and most of them attend south county schools – that this was just crazy. I didn’t come back home until that following Monday night. I went on Facebook, after spending days away from the computer, and I was bombed. I was bombed with people, just two or three people from our school who said there’s a Facebook page that says to join up and try to figure out what to do. Very, very loosely defined.

But parents here were saying, “Oh…go ahead and try to fight it, ha ha ha, you silly little things, it’ll never happen.” And so I started becoming a little activist on this Facebook page. And then someone was smart enough to put a survey together.

The Saturday afternoon before the June 29 meeting, I kind of had this thought that something is going to have to be different. So, I asked for some help in trying to e-mail all of these affected school administrations, the principals, the vice principals, PTAs the SACs . . . So, I started Googling all the schools that were affected, trying to find web pages, trying to find any information that got me an e-mail address. And I probably e-mailed 400 e-mails from Saturday afternoon until 2 o’clock in the morning and said these are the tools that are out there: the Facebook page, the survey, the video of the meeting. Send a note to the  school board . . . and let’s see if we can’t do something.

I have no way of knowing what happened, if those were successful. I got e-mails back from administrators who said, “Thank you for trying. We don’t know that that’s going to make a difference.” Mostly I heard, "Forget it, you can’t do it, good luck." That was most of the e-mail.

Did you think what you were doing was futile?

Yes. I absolutely did. My point in trying to raise it – I really did not believe that they could turn the wheels back because there just wasn’t enough time. . . . I just wanted to try to force the idea. My closing remarks to the board were, “Commission a study, get a task force together, something, so that you can understand for the following years because this isn’t sane to keep doing it year after year.”

You sent e-mails to board members?

I sent several e-mails to the board members. I sent e-mails to the media, e-mails to the administration at the different schools. I sent e-mails to anybody I could find an e-mail for.

What do you think was the key in getting the school board to shift its position?

I think, but I hope I’m wrong, that it was the amount of exposure to how quickly the decision was made without enough supporting data.

What do you mean?

Well, in my opinion, when watching the video of the vote, the board members repeatedly stated that they asked for additional data, a variety of it. They didn’t understand what they had received. They understood the impact to the community— they said that over and over again. And yet they voted to change the bell times. Within less than 13 days – and I’m not sure they got any supporting data – they rescinded their vote. The only difference I can think of was the outcry from the community and that their video was public of them wavering on their decision. It’s one thing to read it in text, its another thing to have the media say they talked about it for 45 minutes. But to actually listen and watch the dialogue and then you make the assumption that they didn’t have the criteria to make a sound decision, you want to say, “Hey, what are you doing?” And that exposure has not been readily available in past board decisions where the community has tried to get them to change their votes . . . Sure those tools were there, but they weren’t quite as accessible or as proven as they are now.

What surprised you most about this process?

It was enlightening for me. I’m a former IT executive, so I’ve had budget issues, I’ve run companies that are three- and four- and 500-people big. I’ve been involved in making complex decisions. But I was surprised by how overwhelmed I was, and continue to be, at the size of the budget and the depth of where the money comes from and the legal bounds as to how they spend it. I don’t think the public appreciates what a tough job the board has.

Have you ever looked at the school board budget before like that?

No. No. And I still haven’t gotten into it. And what surprised me was that the bell time issues are like a needle in the haystack for the board. It’s just one small, tiny little piece of what they’ve got to deal with and try to be legally good representatives to the community.

And given this experience, how has this affected your view of local government?

That’s a tough one. I have more empathy for them. I salute them for taking this on, for trying to serve our community. But I can also appreciate how it can go wrong very quickly. I don’t have any magical answers how to fix local government, but I caution people who state emotionally that, The board’s wrong, that the parks people are wrong, they don’t know what they’re doing.

People need to dig in before they start reacting without the information. It’s big, it’s large and there’s more behind that first layer that they’re just seeing. A lot of times, I know that the government is bound by legal issues and I think people forget how judicious we’ve become and that our governments are forced into craziness sometimes in terms of what they have to decide on.

Do you see this affecting your actions with relation to local government in the future, specifically the school board?

Well, I’m going to take a few days and kind of think about some stuff. This was a 13-day, 24-hour-a-day commitment on my part. It would be a shame for me to walk away and just let it go because, selfishly, I got what I wanted. On the other hand, it’s hard to keep people involved, I know that, unless the subject pertains to them personally.

What I’m contemplating doing with a couple other people who were at the core of this is possibly starting another kind of online – even if it’s a Facebook page – of just kind of watching the budget. An awareness thing. So there’s a place to start asking and digging and raising some issues amongst ourselves and becoming better educated before we start slamming th

e board for some of the decisions they make. And I don’t know quite how to go about doing that. But that’s the intent of a few of us. To try to make these things a little more public than the board is able for whatever reasons. And I’m going to start with busing – with transportation.

What advice do you have for other parents or citizens who find themselves frustrated by the actions of their elected officials?

The standard old line, “The individual cannot make difference?” Well, this was a group of less than a dozen people who did not know each other who somehow was able to convince the community to join up in their call to action and overturn a decision. So, the individual can make a difference.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I would hope that those that were involved that made the calls, that sent the e-mails don’t let this be their last call to action. Next year the board is facing a $50-million cut. I encourage them to ask the questions and stay involved as best you can. We all have busy lives. But read the newspaper. Read the articles. Ask the board members questions if you have a personal concern. Just ask.

[Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 10:09am]


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