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Board weighs closing of five Pinellas elementary schools

Pinellas school administrators have identified five elementary schools that could be closed next year as the district deals with budget problems and long-running enrollment declines.

The School Board will discuss the list at a workshop today, and administrators are hoping for a decision by January on whether all or some of the schools will close.

The schools on the list are:

• Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach.

• Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater.

• North Ward Elementary in Clearwater.

• Palm Harbor Elementary in Palm Harbor.

• Rio Vista Elementary in St. Petersburg.

A sixth school, Clearview Avenue Elementary in St. Petersburg, will close next year as previously planned.

Three of the schools — Gulf Beaches, North Ward and Rio Vista — were spared last year when the district identified 10 schools for closure but chose only three.

The board will consider the new list as it addresses mounting budget woes that reflect the financial crisis unfolding around the world. Pinellas got word last week that revenues needed to cover this year's spending will be cut by at least $21-million — not $13.8-million as was planned.

An additional $40-million will have to be cut next year.

Enrollment, meanwhile, has dropped to 104,717, down nearly 7,000 students since 2005. That translates to an annual revenue loss of nearly $50-million.

"It's a matter of contraction; it's finding the right number of facilities to fit that population," said Jim Madden, an assistant superintendent. "We need to take some schools off the inventory."

Before that happens, the district will likely face opposition from parents like Robin Ellis, the PTA president at Gulf Beaches Elementary, where fundraising events recently brought in $19,000.

"Not everyone gave as much, but more people gave and there was more of a sense of community than ever before," Ellis said of the school's 78th annual fish broil. "I don't think that sounds like a community that's ready to give up their little school."

School Board member Carol Cook said she would be fine with school closings if they served an educational purpose.

"But to make any kind of cuts because we have to make cuts and there's no other reason is very frustrating," she said. "I don't like any of it."

Also Monday, the district released a list of seven schools that could receive "program enhancements" or "expansions" next year if the board approves.

According to Madden, the district would:

• Create more seats at Coachman and Southside fundamental middle schools and at Curtis Fundamental Elementary.

• Establish gifted programs at three middle schools: Dunedin Highland, Morgan Fitzgerald and Thurgood Marshall Fundamental.

• Turn Madeira Beach Elementary and Madeira Beach Middle into one school with grades kindergarten through eight.

In recent weeks, the board has discussed increasing capacity at fundamental schools to meet demand, but also to lessen the load on the district's bus system.Fundamental students do not receive bus service.

Southside Fundamental Middle was on the list of potential closures last year. The district saw the aging St. Petersburg school's declining condition as a potential drawback.

Asked Monday for more detail on how Southside could be expanded, Madden said he would have more to say about the school at today's workshop.

The middle school gifted programs would operate as "schools within schools," Madden said.

The proposal is a response to years of pleas from the Gifted Association of Pinellas and parents at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo, the county's only magnet school for gifted students.

Both groups say regular middle schools do not offer enough gifted courses to challenge students coming out of Ridgecrest.

Creating more magnet programs also reduces the load on the bus system because magnet students receive only arterial bus service.

District officials are focused on busing issues because they want to cut transportation costs, which have risen to $50-million, and they want to cut routes, which will lead to better start times for high schools and middle schools.

The 7:05 a.m. start for high schools is considered too early and the 9:38 a.m. start for middle schools too late.

Madden said adding more fundamental seats and creating three middle school gifted programs would not cost the district more money. It would be achieved, he said, by adjusting staff and curriculum.

He said the board would need to approve the changes in time for the annual student application and assignment season, which typically begins in early February.

The district would need to know how many additional fundamental seats it could offer. Parents would need to know the details of the new gifted programs being offered. And students in soon-to-be-closed schools would have to be reassigned.

"There's a sense of urgency here," Madden said.

If you go

The Pinellas School Board meets in a five-hour workshop today starting at 10:30 a.m. at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo. The public can attend but will not be invited to speak.

Board weighs closing of five Pinellas elementary schools 11/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2008 7:29pm]

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