The Pinellas County School Board's newest members wasted no time in making their presence felt Tuesday, voicing opposition to a key plank in the superintendent's student achievement plan just hours after taking the oath of office.
In doing so, newly elected members Terry Krassner and Lew Williams may have tipped a board majority against Julie Janssen's proposal to merge Lakeview Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg and Gulfport Elementary into one, new, bigger fundamental school.
Many students now at Gulfport would end up in nearby schools that are already packed with high numbers of struggling kids, Williams said. "I'm having difficulties with that," he said.
"If there are real significant reasons for a move, then go for it," said Krassner, who worried about the disruption to families and the staffs at both schools. "But I'm not convinced."
Janssen conceded after the meeting that the new members' opposition made the chance of a merger less likely. But she said she would work hard to persuade them by the time the board votes on her overall plan Dec. 7.
"I'm convinced it's the right thing to do," Janssen said.
Both Krassner, a former principal, and Williams, a former principal and area superintendent, touted their experience in education on the campaign trail. And on Tuesday, it showed. They dove right into one of the more controversial and complicated pieces of Janssen's multi-faceted plan, which aims to give more students access to top-notch academic programs.
The part in question would transplant the students at Lakeview, one of the district's highest performing schools, into Gulfport, which is high poverty and struggling. Gulfport would become a fundamental school at the same time its school-within-a-school Montessori program permanently transferred to Lakeview.
The district has long waiting lists for its fundamental schools, which mandate parental involvement and have the power to boot students who don't follow the rules. They boast some of the highest test scores and lowest suspension rates in Pinellas.
Last week, a tentative majority on the school board signalled support for the Lakeview-Gulfport merger, even as many Lakeview parents objected. But with former aboard members Nina Hayden and Mary Brown no longer in the mix, Krassner and Williams joined board members Janet Clark and Linda Lerner in raising concerns.
"Basically, you're taking away a neighborhood school," Lerner said about Gulfport. "I don't think this is going to benefit Gulfport students."
"I have a lot more negative feelings than positive at this point," Clark said after the meeting.
Board members asked Janssen to bring more data about Gulfport students to the next workshop at the end of the month, including information about the schools that are likely to absorb some of the existing population if the merger happens.
Janssen said she'll bring that and more.
Some critics have suggested that many Gulfport parents will be unwilling or unable to meet the demands of a fundamental school — an argument Janssen called elitist. She said she will ask the principal to poll the families about their views on becoming a fundamental school.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.