Parents revolt against plans to close schools, move students

Nikki Hervey’s sons Michael, 7, left, and Alex, 9, attend Brooker Creek Elementary School in Tarpon Springs. She said she and other parents would sue the school district if her sons have to change schools next year.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Nikki Hervey’s sons Michael, 7, left, and Alex, 9, attend Brooker Creek Elementary School in Tarpon Springs. She said she and other parents would sue the school district if her sons have to change schools next year.

The cafeteria lady at Rio Vista Elementary calls Carrie Mixon personally when the lunch account for her son Mathew is running low.

The school's 7:45 a.m. start time allows her to see him to his first grade classroom before work. She also knows the maintenance man.

Best of all, she finds the teachers at Rio Vista to be "just exceptional."

They've managed to keep Mathew excited about school, "which is not an easy task," Mixon said. "I have a 6-year-old boy who is just as hyper as a jelly bean."

All of those cozy connections may be stripped away as the Pinellas School Board ponders closing Rio Vista, four other elementaries and two middle schools next year. The board also is considering a plan that could uproot at least 40 percent of the district's elementary school population, forcing students into new schools next year.

Designed to save busing costs, the plan involves a complete redrawing of the district's map for elementary school zones, meaning every child in a regular Pinellas elementary school faces the possibility of being moved to a new school next year.

Suddenly, uncertainty reigns. And parents whose children stand to be moved are marshaling their arguments leading up to a School Board vote Tuesday night.

The district could save millions as it deals with an epic budget crisis and declining enrollment. But many parents say the intangible toll on kids and families will be staggering as strong ties to schools are severed.

Take Mixon's perfect public school world, multiply it by tens of thousands of families and the magnitude of the impact is clear.

Will kids survive, even thrive, if forced to move to a new school? Sure.

But some parents argue the pain involved is unnecessary and unfair, and that the district is acting too hastily before considering other options.

Thousands of kids will part with friends and favorite teachers. Maybe you always saw yourself in Ms. Lynch's fourth-grade class; now that will never come to pass. Next year's fifth-graders will never be top dogs at their old schools, with all the benefits that entails — including special field trips and safety patrol duty.

The losses may seem inconsequential to some. But "that's easy to say when it's not your child," said Nikki Hervey, who has two sons at Brooker Creek Elementary in Tarpon Springs, including one who will be in fifth grade next year. Under the district's plan, both boys stand to be assigned to a school closer to her home next year.

"They're going to take my son and put him into a school where he knows no one, which is just not fair," Hervey said. "They're little kids, they need that stability. … They're going to be like fish out of water next year."

Tracey Tacea said her second- and fourth-grade sons will likely be moved from Highland Lakes Elementary in Palm Harbor. She wishes she had known that before.

She said she and her husband were contemplating a move to Atlanta last year as the district implemented a new zone school system to replace the old choice plan. The move made sense since it appeared the boys would be forced out of Highland Lakes to a new zone school. But the School Board voted to "grandfather" all kids into their current schools, allowing them to stay until they graduated.

"We ended up staying and buying a house here, not solely based on that but it was a big contributing factor," Tacea said.

Earlier this week, the board revoked its grandfathering promise in a bid to save money on busing. Tacea says she might have left for Atlanta had she known.

She says she and her boys have built connections to their school. She's a mentor to two students and has worked to improve the school through the PTA.

"It's like a family," she said, adding that she had hoped to "reap the benefits" of her work. "Now we're going to have to start all over."

Many will argue that the district can find other places to cut the budget. Others are questioning why the district would close schools with A grades from the state.

Hervey is launching an effort to persuade the district to restore grandfathering if parents agree to drive their kids to school. But School Board chairperson Peggy O'Shea said there are several reasons for not doing that.

One is fairness, she said, noting that the idea would benefit only families who could afford to drive their kids to school.

She also argued that grandfathered students are filling seats that otherwise would go to children in a school's zone — which means they have to be transported to other schools, which drives up busing costs.

"Bottom line to me is we need to look at the total big picture," O'Shea said. "If we had the money, I'd let everybody have everything they wanted. I'd do a lot of things. But we don't have the money."

Hervey strongly questions the argument that grandfathered students are preventing other kids from going to school in their zone. She contends there are plenty of open seats because of declining enrollment.

"I think there are other options," she said. "I think there are compromises that could be reached."

She also argues that the district twice promised her and thousands of other families they could stay in their schools until their kids graduated. She said she and other parents intend to sue the district.

O'Shea and other district officials note that closing and moving school zones is often a fact of life in a big district. Kids changed schools all the time when Pinellas' population boomed in the 1970s and '80s and the district was building schools, they said.

Now, as Florida's financial fortunes grow increasingly dim, a downward trend is again causing disruption.

"Other districts are looking at this, too," O'Shea said. "We're not the only ones."

IF YOU GO

The Pinellas School Board will hold the first of at least two public hearings on its proposed budget cuts Tuesday. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo. People who want to speak should sign up at the door. The meeting also will be broadcast live on the district's television channel, WPDS-TV. A second public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13.

Parents revolt against plans to close schools, move students 12/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 3:57pm]

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