Parents speak up, and the School Board listened
I almost wanted to put BREAKING NEWS in that headline that for once parents made a point of lobbying their elected officials and they won one. Yesterday the Pinellas County School Board backed off its plan to make major changes in school start times in order to save money. Some elementary schools would have started an hour earlier, some as late as 9:20 a.m., which would mean working parents would have to pony up the cost of before care, about $60 a week.
I don't have a dog in this fight since my kids' schools weren't affected. My only concern all along has been how poorly the school district and even the PTAs at those schools have been in informing parents that changes were coming. Who is advocating for the parents?
Let me give you an example of my frustration. Early in the process of budget cuts, there was talk of canceling the bus at Osceola High and Thurgood Marshall Middle, both fundamental schools that offer busing unlike other fundamental schools. I can't tell you how many usually well-informed parents I ran across who had no idea they might not have a bus next year. Some of them were panicked when I told them because they had picked the school based on its bus. One mom I know works in Tampa and would have no way to run over the bridge middday to pick up her son.
I talked with the PTA presidents of both schools who tried mightily to get their principals to allow them to use the school's phone system to call every household to alert parents this was under consideration. They didn't want to take a side or be political about it, they just wanted to call them before school let out so the parents could at least think about a backup plan or exchange phone numbers for car pools. The principals, wary of looking like they were stirring up the parents, declined and the PTAs resorted to sending out emails. But when you consider that only a fraction of the school population is in their email list, the news did not spread. In the end the school district kept the buses for those two schools so the point was moot, but it still frustrates me that there was no effort to include parents in this process.
I think that's what happened with this start time issue. Parents are tired of being out of the loop. A year ago, in a very similar manner, the school district trotted out a plan to have an early release day every Wednesday as a contract concession to allow teachers planning time. Parents weren't alerted that it was even under consideration or allowed a chance to question the impact this might have on the school day or their child's education. By the time it was made public, the School Board said their hands were tied because it was part of union negotiations. To take that one item out would send the whole contract back for renegotiation.
Over on the Gradebook blog some teachers are grumbling that this victory for parents is likely to come out of their paychecks. That's unfortunate if it becomes a parents vs. teachers issue, especially since teachers also complain of being left out of the loop before major changes are decided.
Is it at all possible to empower school advisory committees or PTAs to use that fancy phone system to alert parents when significant changes are coming? I suspect it is possible, but considering the School Board's habit of changing their vote because of public outcry, maybe that's not how the powers that be want it.
~ Sharon Kennedy Wynne
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