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Parents make pleas to Pinellas School Board over proposed zoning changes

LARGO — More than two dozen parents came in the middle of a workday, each with a plea to let their children be, each with a school that they love.

Whether their devotion was to Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater, Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg, Oakhurst Elementary in Largo or any other school in any other place, the parents who spoke before the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday shared the same conviction.

"Please, please," begged Deborah Formato of St. Petersburg, "just consider letting the children stay in their school."

Board members got an earful from 25 parents — a mere smattering of the thousands of families potentially affected by a school rezoning proposal that could land as many as 4,500 elementary-age students on new campuses next year, according to district figures.

Parents repeatedly described the uneasy feeling they get each year as district officials redraw school zones and alter policies affecting what children qualify to go to what schools.

"There is no stability in our neighborhood," Jenny Moncrieff, 35, told the board.

In 2008, Moncrieff's Palm Harbor home in the Country Woods subdivision was zoned for San Jose Elementary. The next year, it was zoned for Ozona Elementary. Now, with two children attending Ozona, the district's new plan calls for her children to go to San Jose next year.

"It needs to stop," said Kathy Keiderling, 39, also of Palm Harbor.

Keiderling decided to send her children, ages 5 and 8, out of zone after worrying about the proximity of power lines to Sutherland Elementary, her zoned campus.

On Tuesday, Keiderling described the stress of trying to get both of her children into the same school through the district's open enrollment process, then learning this year that the new policy could require some out-of-zone students to head back to their local schools.

"It's every year, holding your breath, not knowing what you're going to do," Keiderling said.

Under the district's proposal, 26 of the county's 63 zoned elementary schools are getting new boundaries. Additionally, some students who are attending schools outside the zone will be required to return to their zoned schools.

As it stands now, the proposal under consideration has several exceptions, including:

• This year's fourth graders can remain at their current schools in 2012-13.

• Students in grades K-3 who are attending out-of-zone schools and were assigned to their schools based on space availability, through open enrollment, under a zoning exception or because they were the sibling of a student with special education needs can remain at their current schools. But parents must provide transportation and, by Jan. 31 of each year, declare their intent to stay in the school.

School district officials say the changes are needed to relieve overcrowding in some schools and better utilize vacant space in others.

Board member Robin Wikle asked several questions during the meeting, most regarding the schools in her northern Pinellas district. She said afterward that any reservations she has stem from the notion that students could find themselves attending schools farther from their homes.

But she said she will probably support the measure, even if her concerns about particular schools aren't fully addressed in the final policy. "I support the principles of right-sizing the district," she said. "The bigger principle is going to win out."

Linda Lerner said rezoning is never easy. But, she said, "as a board member I have to look at the whole district and I have to look at what's safe, effective and efficient."

In answer to parents who described how significantly their school zones played in their home selections, she said, "Never buy your house based on what school it's zoned for now."

Several in the audience raised their hands and shook their heads in objection.

Board members plan to discuss the proposed policy further during a 9 a.m. workshop Tuesday, then to vote on a final draft during a 5 p.m. meeting Dec. 6, with the student assignment discussion set for 7 p.m.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Parents make pleas to Pinellas School Board over proposed zoning changes 11/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 12:33am]
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