Tens of thousands of Pinellas children would be forced to change schools next year under a School Board plan that aims to cut millions of dollars in busing costs.
The plan calls for the district to redraw the entire zone map for elementary schools, from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. It comes just a year after the board approved the map as part of a new student assignment plan.
The plan is sure to generate a firestorm of protest. But board members said they have little choice, given a projected budget shortfall of $40-million for 2009-10 and a grim fiscal outlook for later years.
They also are addressing a decline in enrollment that is projected to bring the district to fewer than 95,000 students by 2013, down from a high of 112,520 in 2003.
"We have to strap in because it's going to be a rough ride," board member Carol Cook said of the public backlash that was already starting to materialize Tuesday evening.
"We're already talking about homeschooling and private school," said Machon Kennedy, whose two daughters would likely be moved from Brooker Creek Elementary in Tarpon Springs. They were crying at the news Tuesday night, she said.
"I don't have any faith in the board," Kennedy said. "Their integrity is shot in my opinion."
Most of the students affected — about 18,700 — are in elementary schools they got into under the old choice plan. When the district changed to a new plan last year, they were "grandfathered" into their choice schools and not required to move to their new zone schools. They also receive bus service.
School Board members now say they no longer can afford bus rides for grandfathered elementary school students. What's more, the board wants them to be moved to their zone schools next year because they are driving up busing costs by filling seats that otherwise would go to children who live closer.
In addition, thousands more students likely would be affected when the district draws a new zone map. As boundary lines change, many students sitting in their zone school would be drawn into a new zone and reassigned to a new zone school. Also, thousands of families with children entering kindergarten next year may not be going to the school they thought was their zone school.
The message to Pinellas families with children in any regular elementary school: No matter your situation, assume nothing about where they will go to school next year.
Students in magnet and fundamental schools would not be affected.
The plan also includes the closing of five schools for a savings of about $4-million: Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach, Kings Highway and North Ward elementary schools in Clearwater, Rio Vista in St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor Elementary.
"I was disappointed in the School Board, but that does not mean it's over," said Debbi Fiegle, PTA president at Palm Harbor Elementary, where parents are planning a save-our-school rally Friday evening. "To me, it's not over until they actually vote."
Fiegle said a large contingent from the school will be at the board's meeting Tuesday night.
There, the board will vote on the closings, the grandfathering issue and a related plan to merge four middle schools into two — all part of a "contraction strategy" to deal with lower revenues and fewer students.
Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools would be closed and moved. Southside's program would be relocated to Madeira Beach Middle and Coachman's to Kennedy Middle.
A final vote is scheduled Jan. 13, but officials said the redrawn elementary school map might not be ready for final approval until February.
The board arrived at the decision to redraw the elementary school map after a series of considerations that centered on the district's bulging transportation budget.
"I just don't think transportation is where we want to spend our money, especially if we're getting less and less of it all the time," said board member Janet Clark.
By closing five schools, the board already was looking at a limited change in the zoning map. But the picture broadened as the board began to consider the busing money they could save by revoking grandfathering privileges to elementary school students.
With 18,700 grandfathered students — about 40 percent of the elementary school population — the domino effect of trying to place them all into schools on an individual basis looked to be a nightmare.
Better, the board said, to just redraw the map and try to get as many students as possible into schools close to their homes.
Board chairperson Peggy O'Shea noted that the five-year choice plan encouraged families to explore schools outside their neighborhoods, leading to lengthy bus rides.
"After several years of that, the kids are really scattered," she said. "The only way to fix that is cold turkey — move them all at once."
While initially painful to many families, the move would reduce bus routes, shorten bus rides, bring more kids closer to home and stabilize the system in the long run, O'Shea argued.
The board elected to retain grandfathering for middle and high school students. After next year, the thinking went, there will be no more grandfathered students in middle school.
As for high school, board members said they did not want to force students to move who already had joined clubs or sports teams and formed a bond with the school.
At any rate, the biggest savings were to be found in elementary schools, officials said.
Cook said she will need more information before voting on the plan. She said she wants to see, for example, where the district would move students now attending the closed schools.
"You don't want to be doing this to families but it's got to be done," she said. "You hate to be the doomsday person but it isn't getting any better next year."