Every year, more than 1,000 Pinellas teachers ask to move to other schools, with some of the highest numbers coming from south county schools with high poverty rates.
But this year, two schools in Dunedin and three in Clearwater are at the top of the list.
"Everyone wants to go to Safety Harbor Middle," said Judy Barrett, a PE teacher at Dunedin Highland who longs to return to a high school setting, where she spent the bulk of her 30-year career.
Transfer requests can be a strong indicator of which schools are humming — and which are reeling from tough kids, poor leadership, accountability pressures or all of the above.
This year, 1,584 teachers filled out requests. Some want to be closer to home. Some want options in case budget cuts claim their jobs.
Some aren't happy.
"It's a red flag of instability," teachers union president Kim Black said.
If so, instability is gaining a bigger foothold in some north county schools.
Two years ago, only one of the 10 schools with the most transfer requests was in north county. This year, five are: Dunedin Elementary, Dunedin Highland Middle, High Point Elementary, Belleair Elementary and Sandy Lane Elementary. (The transfer process was largely suspended last year because of school closures, so the numbers aren't comparable.)
Many of those schools are facing issues more often associated with their south county peers.
Ninety-two percent of the students at Belleair are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, up 10 percentage points from a year ago, principal Rob Ovalle said.
The school made an A last year and was one of the few high-poverty schools in Pinellas to meet federal academic standards. But if it falls short of those standards this year — as it did several times in the past — it likely will mean more mandates and oversight.
Ovalle said most of the 26 Belleair teachers who asked to move this year did so because of anxiety over budget cuts. He said there is no doubt they deal with more stress than teachers at many other schools.
"It's tough," he said. "Are we monitoring their (students') gains? Yes, more than at other schools. We have to."
At Dunedin Highland Middle, 31 teachers requested transfers, more than any Pinellas school except Gibbs High (36) and Pinellas Park Middle (32).
Barrett, the PE teacher, suggested the high number of transfer requests could be due to numerous changes at the school in the last year. The school got a new principal. It took in a slew of new students from now-closed Kennedy Middle. It hired a pile of new teachers.
"Last year was probably the biggest change I've seen," Barrett said.
Dunedin Highland principal Brenda Poff was at a conference in Orlando and could not be reached for comment. But in a March interview about suspension rates, she noted that because of shifting attendance zones, the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch has risen rapidly (from 50 to 65 percent since 2007, according to state and district records).
"It's the same neighborhood situation we're experiencing here," said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "Whether it's north county or south county, the staff members are not prepared to deal with the number of (low-income) kids."
Sometimes, teachers point to leadership.
At Sandy Lane Elementary, library information specialist Carrie Esposito said she requested a transfer because she feared her job would be killed by funding cuts. But with other faculty members putting in requests, "I think most of it was the administration."
The district's 2009 "climate survey" revealed a tense atmosphere at Sandy Lane: 24 percent of the staff who responded said teachers and administrators worked well together; 60 percent said they did not.
Superintendent Julie Janssen recently announced a change in leadership at the school, though a replacement principal has not been named. Former principal Delores Milton, now the principal at Bay Point Elementary, did not return a call for comment.
Dunedin Elementary principal Kathy Brickley also could not be reached for comment.
At High Point, principal Susan Graham-Taylor, who took the helm last year, said transfer requests are high because she advised her teachers to seek options in case of budget cuts. She said high request numbers can signal a tense atmosphere — but not always.
"I predict 99 percent would say they love working at High Point," she said.
In the end, it's not likely that more than a few hundred teachers will get their transfer wishes fulfilled. The placement process ends July 29.
In the meantime, school board member Linda Lerner said there's a better way to pinpoint the aggravating factors at individual schools: survey those who want out.
"We should talk to those teachers and ask why," she said.
Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.