LARGO — The Pinellas School Board voted 7-0 early today to tentatively approve a money-saving plan that would close several schools and force thousands of students to change schools next year.
The decision won't be final until a vote Jan. 13, but the factors that drove it — acute budget problems and declining enrollment — are not expected to change. The unanimous vote came despite a full-throated protest from parents, teachers, students and volunteers who spoke in a four-hour public hearing that kept the board deliberating past midnight.
"We're not doing this because we want to do it," said board member Mary Brown. "We're doing this because we have to."
Echoing other board members, chairperson Peggy O'Shea said: "The Legislature played a role in this and we need to get on their backs on this."
Dozens of speakers urged officials to take a second look at the data driving the proposal. They also implored board members to consider the human toll of closing small community schools they described as too valuable to lose — even in a budget crisis.
Others said a related plan to save busing costs by forcing thousands of students into their zoned schools was hastily conceived, unduly harsh and unfair to families who were promised just last year they could stay in their current schools.
Many questioned the board's rationale and urged officials to consider other cuts in the budget first.
"Please, dig deep, try harder and find a way to keep this tragedy from happening," said Tim George, a teacher and parent at St. Petersburg's Rio Vista Elementary, one of five schools that would be closed.
"Show us the proof," said Palm Harbor Elementary parent Angela Katz, who questioned whether the district had fought hard enough to get more money from the state and whether it had shared enough information with the public. "We deserve a written plan."
Brandi George, a parent at North Ward Elementary in Clearwater, told the board of the school's Donuts for Dads and Muffins for Moms events, where parents read books to their kids over breakfast.
"You can't have that with a larger school," she argued. "That doesn't exist."
Norman Alper, 85, has been a volunteer tutor for 18 years at Kings Highway Elementary, which has one of the county's highest percentages of poor students.
"We have a librarian — God, there's no other person like her that I've ever met," he told the board. "She's just exceptional. She says hello to every student as they come in. … Keep our school open."
St. Pete Beach Mayor Mike Finnerty and City Commissioner Linda Chaney said the commission canceled its meeting Tuesday night to ask that the board delay the closing of Gulf Beaches Elementary for a year until it can work with the district to keep it open as a charter school.
"We've got a close-knit community and that school's the heartbeat of it," Finnerty said.
Chaney said many beach families would be left without a nearby public school. "They would condemn us to being a retirement community if they were to take the school out," she said.
All five elementary schools on the district's closing list have 400 or fewer students, which compares to enrollments of 500 to 700 students at most Pinellas elementaries. Also on the small side, with about 600 students each, are the two fundamental middle schools — Southside and Coachman — which the district wants to close and relocate to other schools.
The parents' message: Don't solve the budget shortfall by sacrificing small schools with strong support, long traditions and high performance scores.
But district officials say they have no choice but to close schools as enrollment declines and a state fiscal crisis has saddled Pinellas with a $48-million shortfall for 2009-10. The district targeted the schools based on several factors, including the age of the buildings, their small size, the potential savings in operating costs if they were closed, and the location of families living around those schools.
The performance of the schools on standardized tests was not factored into the decision, though dozens of parents said it should have been.
Many parents protested the board's proposal to revoke "grandfathering" for elementary students who last year were allowed to stay in the schools they got into under the old choice plan. Under the board's proposal, they would be moved to a zoned school. In addition, the district's zone map for elementary schools will have to be redrawn for next year, bringing uncertainty to thousands of families who won't know where their children will go to school next year.
Officials proposed the plan as a way to cut the district's bulging transportation budget. But parents said the proposal goes back on promises the district made last year.