BROOKSVILLE — Families of students applying for a spot at two of the district's magnet schools now must ask: Do we feel lucky?
A divided Hernando School Board voted unexpectedly Tuesday night to change the admissions procedures for Chocachatti Elementary and Challenger K-8 schools. Starting this application year, 70 percent of students who apply to the two schools will be selected by lottery and 30 percent by a scored portfolio. The ratio had been exactly the opposite.
The board also made significant changes to how students land in the district's third magnet school, Nature Coast Technical High, by voting unanimously to create a partial neighborhood zone around the school. Students in the zone will be given preference in the admission process, and the rest of the seats will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis by students who apply. The seats had been filled by 70/30 portfolio-to-lottery ratio.
The Nature Coast vote was expected since the board informally approved the changes during a workshop last month. Principal Toni-Ann Noyes advocated the revisions to allow broader access to the school.
The change to the lottery-portfolio ratio for Challenger and Chocachatti admission was somewhat of a surprise, however, because the board had agreed at the same workshop to leave the current system in place for another year and consider, in the coming months, changes for the 2013-14 school year.
Board member John Sweeney reopened the discussion before Tuesday's formal vote, arguing for a 100 percent lottery system for Chocachatti and Challenger. Sweeney also tried again, unsuccessfully, to sway the board on a controversial plan to create partial neighborhood zones for both schools.
An admissions procedure done primarily by lottery would make the district eligible for federal grant money to develop more magnet programs throughout the district, Sweeney reminded the board. It's sensible to make the change now to get that process started, he said.
"We need the money," he said. "There really is no time like the present."
As for the partial zone, he said, "I believe nothing beats a neighborhood school, and kids should go to the school they live right next to."
Chairman James Yant and member Dianne Bonfield also voted for the change to the lottery-portfolio ratio. A lottery system could expand the opportunities for students throughout the district, Bonfield said. And board members cited recent data that indicate there is little difference in performance between Chocachatti and Challenger students accepted by lottery and those accepted by portfolio.
While Bonfield and other board members have indicated they're open to the idea of a partial zone for the schools, they agreed it was way too late in the year to do that now. Orientation meetings for the two schools start this week.
The timing was the reason member Matt Foreman voted against the change to the lottery-portfolio ratio. At the earlier workshop, Foreman advocated a 100 percent lottery system, but refused Tuesday night to support changes before the district's controlled choice committee offers more recommendations for magnet admission procedures. Member Cynthia Moore also opposed the change.
"I don't intend to keep the status quo forever, unless that shows, down the line, to be the best thing for students," Foreman said.
The change to the ratio helps pave the way for the district to apply for dollars through the U.S. Department of Education Magnet School Assistance Program. The grant application process is competitive, but potentially lucrative, with an average award of $1 million, said Eric Williams, the district's director of school improvement. Any money awarded to the district could arrive in time for next budget year.
The district budgeted about $650,000 this year for transportation and additional staff for the three magnet schools. It's unclear if the federal money could be used to supplant those expenses, but any money awarded could certainly be used to start new magnet programs at other schools, Williams said.
The admissions procedures are only part of the grant requirements. The district must also submit a plan to balance the numbers of poor, minority and disabled students — among other subgroups — at each school.
Still, the change to the ratio is an important first move, superintendent Bryan Blavatt told board members.
"This is a big step forward," he said. "I applaud the board for sticking with it."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.