Last month, Ned Hands and his wife applied to get their 5-year-old daughter into a coveted Pinellas fundamental school. In fact, they applied to five of them. Every night since, they've prayed she will get in.
She might. But this year, the odds are slimmer.
Pinellas parents submitted 8,450 applications for fundamental school seats this year — up 23 percent from last year, according to district data released this week. But they're vying — through a lottery system — for about the same number of seats as last year.
Realistically, there might be 800 open seats.
"Oh, no, don't tell me that," said Hands, 38, a St. Petersburg Realtor. "We want in pretty bad."
The big jump in demand means more parents will be frustrated when the schools announce their initial invitations next month. It also means more pressure on the Pinellas School Board to provide more fundamental seats soon, or face the wrath of an increasingly organized parents group unhappy with neighborhood schools.
"It's just worrisome that as far as how much taxes we pay, we can't find good schools," said Chris Wenzel, a St. Petersburg parent who hopes his fifth-grader will get into a fundamental middle school so he won't have to attend his zoned school, Bay Point Middle.
Fundamental schools are public schools that mandate parental involvement. The nine in Pinellas boast some of the highest test scores and lowest discipline rates. They also cost taxpayers less than other public schools.
Last year, nudged by demand and budget cuts, the school board approved the biggest expansion of the fundamental program in its 33-year history, boosting seats from about 5,700 to 7,200. But the new seats might have only whetted parents' appetite.
Most of the elementary school applications are for kindergarten slots, where the odds are even longer than they appear on paper. The same goes for sixth grade and ninth grade.
District policy allows siblings of fundamental students to follow in their brother's or sister's footsteps, so a quarter or more of the kindergarten slots each year are already taken. It also guarantees that students already in the fundamental school pipeline can stay in those kinds of schools until they graduate. This year, that means some 40 percent of the middle school slots and nearly all of the high school slots will likely be filled by rising fifth-graders and eighth-graders.
On paper, the district says there are about 1,650 total slots. Fundamental school activist Bud Zimmer, who keeps close tabs on the numbers, said there are more like 1,800.
But boil them down, Zimmer said, and what matters is this: Only about 800 are truly open.
At the school level, Madeira Beach K-8 Fundamental offers a good example of what a hopeful parent is looking at. Kindergarten applications: 506. Seats: About 50.
"That's potentially a pretty good wait list," said deputy superintendent Jim Madden.
He cautioned it's unclear how many more families applied this year. There's no limit on the applications a family can put in for choice programs — which includes fundamentals and others — and many put in several.
That can inflate the numbers — and the odds — at certain schools.
Madden also said the district needs to take a closer look at why there are more applications. Some of the other choice programs — for example, the International Baccalaureate programs at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High — also saw significant spikes.
It could be, Madden said, that a tough economy is spurring more private school parents to look at public options. Or it could be that as the district has returned to neighborhood schools, more people are not satisfied with what they're zoned for.
Regardless, Madden said, the school board will be taking a closer look at the demand and how to respond.
Board member Mary Brown, who supports more fundamental seats, said the possibility of expansion "deserves discussion."
"It's a choice for parents," she said.
For some fundamental school advocates, this year's numbers are an I-told-you-so. They intend to keep pressing.
The school board knows more parents want fundamental schools, but "they're just reluctant apparently to give the public what they want," Zimmer said.
The board began wading into that debate last fall when a new parents group, the Fundamental Schools Advocacy Network, pushed hard for high school seats beyond those at Osceola Fundamental High. With the addition of more fundamental middle school seats last year, some parents worried that the 450 ninth-grade slots at Osceola wouldn't be enough to accommodate those in the pipeline.
Madden said about 525 fundamental eighth-graders applied to be in Osceola next year. But he was confident many would choose other schools.
For now, a few thousand parents are keeping their fingers crossed.
Wenzel, the south St. Petersburg dad, said he knows what he's going to do if his son doesn't get into a fundamental: take him out of public school completely.
"Unfortunately," he said, "it's going to be loans to take him to Shorecrest."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.