A day after Tuesday night's four-hour public hearing on a controversial budget-cutting plan, Pinellas County School Board members said they are open to changing it before a final vote next month.
But a solid majority still expressed support for the plan's three main ideas: closing elementary schools; consolidating two fundamental middle schools on larger existing campuses; and inducing as many students as possible to move to their zoned schools as a way to cut busing costs.
The proposals could save as much as $17-million as the board addresses declining enrollment and begins to chip away at a projected $48-million budget shortfall for 2009-10.
Board members listened to more than 80 speakers before voting shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday to send the bulk of the plan to a second and final reading Jan. 13. The board could keep the plan intact or water it down, creating less pain for families but necessitating cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"I think most of the board members understand how much we need to cut and realize how much more there is to come," said board member Janet Clark.
While five of the seven board members said they support the school closings, some had questions about individual schools or certain aspects of the plan.
For example, board member Peggy O'Shea said she wants information on how much it might cost to put portable classrooms on campuses that receive students from closed schools. If the cost is too much, she said, a closing might not make sense.
Board members Janet Clark and Robin Wikle said they wonder whether there might be a way to keep Gulf Beaches Elementary open because it's the only public school on the barrier islands. St. Pete Beach officials have proposed turning it into a charter school.
Board member Carol Cook said she wants more information on the district's plans for closing Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater, saying she fears that sending its students to nearby Sandy Lane Elementary would create a school with an extraordinarily high number of kids from poor families.
Still, those four board members and a fifth, Mary Brown, voiced solid support for the closings.
"I don't feel we have a choice," Brown said. "We have to close the schools. That's just the way it is. We have to save money."
A sixth board member, Linda Lerner, said she had not made up her mind on any of the proposals but nevertheless indicated that school closings appeared imminent.
Four board members — Brown, Clark, Cook and Wikle — said they support a proposal to move Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools to other campuses. Coachman would relocate to Kennedy Middle and Southside to Madeira Beach Middle, though some of Southside's students could elect to go to nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle instead.
Another board member, Lerner, said she supports the middle school proposal "in general" but had questions about how it would be implemented.
Four board members — Brown, O'Shea, Wikle and Nina Hayden — said they are interested in an alternative proposal to move Southside to Thurgood Marshall. Many Southside families rejected the idea last year but leaders of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP proposed it again Tuesday night.
In the third leg of the district's budget-cutting proposal, elementary students who were "grandfathered" into their existing schools when the district changed assignment systems last year would be made to move to their zoned schools next year.
To differing degrees, a solid board majority — Brown, Clark, Lerner, O'Shea and Wikle — said they are prepared to revoke grandfathering.
Brown said she believes it probably will be necessary to return all grandfathered elementary kids to their zoned schools. Clark generally is on the same page, though she said she would consider allowing this year's fourth-graders to remain in their schools for fifth grade.
At a minimum, the other three would consider revoking grandfathering but letting families stay at their current schools if they drive there themselves.
Cook said she is concerned about revoking grandfathering because it would require as many as 20,000 kids to change schools — nearly half the county's elementary school enrollment.
She questioned whether it was worth the savings and fears that many students would have to move again if the board closes more schools next year.
"When we're talking half the kids (in elementary school), that to me is huge," Cook said. "I'm not sure it's the right thing to do now."