Out of the blue, Pinellas Superintendent Julie Janssen recommended Thursday the creation of another fundamental school — this one in Clearwater at an elementary school that was closed last year for financial reasons.
Janssen said Kings Highway Elementary could be reopened next fall as a 500-seat fundamental elementary school.
Doing so would reduce the long list of parents waiting to get their kids into Curtis Fundamental Elementary in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary, she said.
It would also lure potentially hundreds of parents who enrolled their children in private schools when they couldn't get in.
"That will help us bring those kids back," Janssen said.
The response from fundamental school advocates: "Get out! Who knew?" said Teresa Daiker, the PTA president at Curtis Fundamental.
Janssen floated the idea during a school board workshop on her sweeping plan to give more students across the district access to top-notch academic programs. Other pressing issues left little room for comment on Kings Highway.
But board members offered two important but tentative thumbs up on other key planks that have riled up parents.
A majority indicated they will back her proposal to move a Montessori program from Gulfport Elementary to Lakeview Fundamental Elementary; and to turn Gulfport into a fundamental school after absorbing the much smaller Lakeview.
A majority also showed support for a compromise that Janssen offered in place of an initial proposal to move the International Baccalaureate program out of Palm Harbor University High. The compromise would keep IB at Palm Harbor but slim it down over time from its current enrollment of about 550 to about 375.
The nodding heads mean Janssen's overall plan appears headed for approval, though there are two wild cards — the two new board members who will be seated after next week's election.
The board is scheduled to take a final vote on the plan Dec. 7.
In the meantime, opposition isn't likely to fade.
Thursday afternoon, about 30 sign-toting parents and students from Lakeview Fundamental gathered outside Gulfport Elementary to protest a meeting of a "transition team" that has been set up to discuss the issue. "We're fighting as hard as we can," said Kristie Dowling-Verano, whose 6-year-old daughter is a first-grader at Lakeview. "We know we can win this."
About a dozen Palm Harbor IB parents who attended Thursday's workshop also expressed disappointment.
Some said they want the board to postpone a decision to downsize the IB program for a year or more until it can be determined how other proposed changes — such as a new IB at Largo High — may ease the school's overcrowding.
"Let it settle out," said Palm Harbor IB parent Liz Valletti.
After the meeting, board members had a mixed reaction on Kings Highway.
"It would offer options in an area that doesn't have many," said member Peggy O'Shea, who liked its proximity to the predominantly black Greenwood section of Clearwater.
Member Carol Cook said the idea had merit, but wanted to know more details.
"We closed (Kings Highway) for financial reasons," she said. "I don't want to open another facility if financially it's not going to be worthwhile, or if it impacts populations in other schools."
Janssen said the school will pay for itself if it's filled to capacity and draws new students to the district.
According to district figures, 374 students on the waiting list at Curtis Fundamental have an "unknown school assignment," which means they're likely in private school, said deputy superintendent Jim Madden. On the waiting list at Tarpon Springs Fundamental, 178 students are in a similar category, though many students may be on both lists.
Madden said the district looked at all eight schools it closed in recent years, but Kings Highway was the best option given size, location and potential startup costs. Some schools were smaller. Some needed more repairs.
Janssen said since Kings Highway closed, circumstances had changed enough to consider a re-opening. Demand for fundamental schools has grown, she said. And the school board is more open to expanding them.
"We heard loud and clear, 'We need those seats,' " she said.
Madden said a similar re-opening couldn't work in lieu of the Gulfport-Lakeview switch because it wouldn't address a separate home for the Montessori program.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.