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Pinellas middle school mergers pose sticky questions

A money saving plan by Pinellas school officials to close two middle schools after this year and move their programs to different campuses has parents and educators grasping for answers.

When schools merge, who wins and who loses? Who stays and who goes? Which school's traditions dominate? What will be the colors, the mascot, the curriculum?

A thousand questions remain after the School Board tentatively approved a plan Tuesday to close Coachman Middle School in Clearwater and Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and relocate their programs.

Coachman would move two miles away to Kennedy Middle, and Southside would move 12 miles away to Madeira Beach Middle School.

The district says families now at Kennedy and Madeira Beach would have to subscribe to the fundamental concept, which requires parent involvement and has stricter rules on discipline, homework and dress. Those who do not agree to the rules would be offered a seat at another school.

Four schools. Hundreds of kids. Big changes in the works for kids. The School Board is expected to take the first formal vote on the plan Dec. 9.

"A lot of our people today are just anxious to have answers," Southside principal Michael Miller said Wednesday.

Staffers were wondering where they would be working next year or even whether they would have jobs, he said. Parents were asking if the program would remain faithful to the fundamental model.

District officials acknowledge that details of the transition have yet to be worked out, but say it will have to happen soon.

Superintendent Julie Janssen said Wednesday she will appoint a committee of people from all four schools to sort out how the transition will proceed.

One question that families and staffers will have to sort out for themselves is whether the changes represent an opportunity or a burden.

Laurie Frey, a longtime secretary at Kennedy, said when she heard Coachman might move in, she wanted to picket with a sign that said: "We are a good school."

She described poignant scenes during the school's Christmas drives, when children from poor families give to classmates with nothing. Students are well prepared for high school, she said.

She questioned why the district would think about ending all that.

"Well, it's money," Frey concluded correctly. "I guess that's all they are thinking about."

The moves are part of larger effort to cut $40-million from next year's budget.

Waiting to pick up her daughter, Kennedy parent Janice Szwec, 36, of Clearwater said she went to Kennedy, too, and the School Board should leave well enough alone.

But a few cars back, Fahro Fejzic said he would like to see Coachman move in. "My daughter applied, and she's on the waiting list," he said. "So that's good news for her."

At Coachman, there was mild anxiety that the merger could threaten a good thing.

"My main concern is that they keep the fundamental program intact," said Gail Winters, whose two children attend the school. "I'm just concerned the new kids are willing to adhere to the fundamental program."

PTA president Tracy Eads said moving "always poses difficulties," but given the economic climate, she is glad the school is being relocated to a place it can grow.

"It will give us the opportunity to serve more children," she said.

County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, a former School Board member, said her view is that Madeira Beach Middle is closing and Southside is simply relocating.

"By portraying it that way and by doing it that way, we have the best chance of keeping what works at Southside," said Bostock, who has a daughter at the school.

But Brenda Poff, the principal at Madeira Beach Middle, saw the move as a chance for the unique waterfront school to remain intact without the threat of being sold to developers.

The school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

"It is still Madeira Beach Middle School," Poff said. "It just will have a fundamental (aspect) to it. So perhaps there's something in between."

The staff at Southside came up with a compromise on the name at least.

"We were just laughing," said Miller. "We were calling it South Beach."

Times staff writers Theresa Blackwell and Eileen Schulte contributed to this report.

Pinellas middle school mergers pose sticky questions 11/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 8:42pm]
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