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Pinellas may send out-of-zone students back to neighborhood schools

The Pinellas School Board appears poised to take thousands of elementary school students grandfathered into schools outside their zones and put them back into their neighborhood schools.

The move, part of a broader effort to rezone elementary schools, is likely to upset parents who don't want their children uprooted from schools they've come to call home. At the same time, it may give relief to other parents whose kids have been denied access to their neighborhood schools because so many out-of-zone kids are in the mix.

At a workshop Tuesday, some members said the short-term sting is necessary for long-term stability.

"If we're trying to get neighborhood schools and stable (school) zones, we've got to do it cold turkey," board member Peggy O'Shea said.

The board is scheduled to take the first of two votes on the recommended change Nov. 8. At the workshop, members raised no major objections and several signaled support.

"I think for the most effective, efficient and safe schools, we have to make some tough decisions," board member Linda Lerner after the workshop. "I know there are going to be some parents and students who are going to want to stay where they are and I understand that."

Board member Robin Wikle also backed the idea, but said she might make an exception for fifth-graders. "I think that's a tough group to say well you're not going to finish with your group," she said. "I think we really should be sensitive to that."

At issue is a legacy of the controversial school choice plans that the district used for several years.

The goal then was to try, through the voluntary decisions of parents, to keep schools racially diverse. When the efforts all but ended in 2008, the board adopted several, well-intentioned policies that members often refer to now as a Band-Aid.

It allowed thousands of students who had already selected or been assigned to schools outside of their zones to remain there. It also allowed little brothers and sisters to join them once they aged into the system. The decisions spared kids the trauma of separation. It kept siblings together.

It's a safe bet that most parents assumed this deal wouldn't be upended midstream. But it also created cascading problems with other students being shut out, additional busing costs and headaches with the class-size amendment.

It was unclear Tuesday exactly how many students would be affected, but Marshall Touchton, the district's demographic specialist, said it is likely to be several thousand. More specific numbers, including school-by-school data, are expected to surface in coming weeks.

At the workshop, Dee Burns, director of student assignment, mentioned that one school — McMullen-Booth Elementary in Clearwater — had 144 out-of-zone students. Its zone also had 75 students who couldn't get into the school because of capacity and class-size issues.

"I want it to be reasonable to expect that any family moving into (a) zone is probably going to be able to attend that zoned school if they wish to," Touchton said.

Possible changes to similar policies for middle and high school students are still under review.

The proposed change for elementary schools, which the staff is recommending, comes as the district prepares for a major revamp of elementary school boundaries.

Earlier this year, the board gave initial approval to elementary school zoning changes that would have affected 20 schools and about 400 incoming kindergarten students. But it nixed a final vote after former superintendent Julie Janssen recommended it postpone those changes and do a bigger, more comprehensive rezoning next year.

District staff on Tuesday offered the names of 10 schools that top the rezoning list, some because they're packed to the gills, others because they have extra space. They are: Sawgrass Lake, Lakewood, Shore Acres, Tarpon Springs, Frontier, Campbell Park, Azalea, Ridgecrest, Cross Bayou and Skyview.

The zoning changes will be sure to generate heat once the proposed zoning maps are made public. In the meantime, the board appears to be steeling itself to support the recommendation on out-of-zone kids.

"We kept dancing around the subject and every year, we're back to the same point," said board chair Carol Cook. "We need to do it once and for all."

"I think we just need to have a backbone," said member Janet Clark. "It's tough on families. (But) I think being able to give them the stability of knowing where things stand in the long run is going to be better for all of us."

We'd like to talk to parents whose children were grandfathered into schools outside their zones and to parents whose children couldn't get into their zoned schools. If you're willing to share your story, please reach Ron Matus at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas may send out-of-zone students back to neighborhood schools 10/18/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 12:21pm]

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