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Exceptions recommended for changes in school zone policy

The Pinellas School Board appears headed toward a couple of exceptions to proposed changes in zoning policy that will likely make hundreds of parents happy.

Virtually all of the out-of-zone elementary school students who will be fifth-graders next year will be allowed to stay in their current schools under a staff recommendation unveiled Tuesday. So will fourth-graders who were displaced by school closings in 2008.

Board members raised no objections to either exception during a workshop, and several said afterward that they back the change for next year's fifth-graders.

"That is something I would definitely support," said board chairwoman Carol Cook. "I think it's appropriate for continuity."

As it gears up for a major rezoning of elementary schools, the board has been talking about sending 3,000 to 3,500 out-of-zone elementary students back to their zoned schools next fall. District officials say the move is necessary to help "right size" zones that have left some schools seriously overcrowded and others with plenty of space to spare.

The reasons for out-of-zone students (that doesn't include magnet and fundamental students) are many: Some were grandfathered outside of their zones when the district ended its controversial school choice program in 2007; some when parents picked schools during "open enrollment," which allows kids to switch schools if room is available; still others when the district closed a handful of schools in 2008.

The board's initial discussion last week sparked mixed reaction. Many parents who were offered a choice of out-of-zone schools said the district was now breaking a promise to allow their kids to finish at those schools. But others felt hope because their kids have been denied a seat in their zoned schools due in part to out-of-zone kids.

District staffers have not yet determined how many of next year's fourth- and fifth-graders would be affected by their recommendation. But it's likely to at least be in the hundreds.

Interim superintendent John Stewart is supporting the exceptions. "If we made these promises, we have to see them through," he said. "Integrity is the most important thing we have to go by."

The board will take the first of two votes on the proposed policy changes Nov. 8. It has scheduled another workshop on the subject Tuesday.

"It's a good idea," board member Lew Williams said about the exception for next year's fifth-graders. "To move (a student) at the last grade, I think it could be disruptive."

"I have to look at that, but it sounds like a good idea," said board member Linda Lerner, referring to the exception for next year's fourth-graders who were affected by school closings. "They were already displaced once." The proposed exceptions, however, won't extend to many siblings.

"It's not going to help us any," said Anne Chavez, who has a fifth-grader and a third-grader at Ponce de Leon Elementary. She said the connection between students and teachers at Ponce is better than at her kids' zoned school. The board "put themselves in this situation, and I don't think the kids should have to pay for that."

Chavez also wondered why the board targeted only out-of-zone students in zoned schools. Those in magnet and fundamental schools should be sent back, too, she said. "It's only fair," she said.

Pam Lasher, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Safety Harbor Elementary, outside of her zone, said she and her family will benefit if the board approves the exceptions. But she said the board's proposal to return other out-of-zone students has made her lose faith.

"The citizens and parents need to be able to trust that when the School Board tells them something, they're going to follow through on it," Lasher said. "I don't feel like, at this point, that there's anything they'd say to me that I could rely on."

In a related development, district staffers said the proposed new zoning maps for elementary schools will be made public Tuesday.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Exceptions recommended for changes in school zone policy 10/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 11:52pm]
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