LARGO — The Pinellas School Board approved new zones for elementary schools Tuesday, creating a small measure of certainty in a time of rapid change for the district and its student assignment system.
The board's 7-0 vote followed a money-saving decision last month to close five elementary schools next year, a move that forced the district to redraw its zone map for the second time in the last 10 months.
An estimated 17,000 students will be affected in some way for the 2009-10 school year. Many will find themselves suddenly assigned to new schools; many others will be left without bus service.
The closings will save the district about $4.3 million — just part of what is expected to be a total cut of $65 million as Pinellas responds to declining enrollment and a statewide budget crisis.
Under a related policy approved by the board last month, students will be guaranteed a seat in their zoned schools. Students currently in a school that is not their zoned school can elect to remain at that school, but they will no longer receive bus service.
Students who are zoned into a new school as a result of the new map also may stay at their current school, although without bus service.
The board's decision to withhold bus service to elementary school students outside their zone saves an estimated $7 million.
Tuesday's board discussion and the public comments that followed reflected what a bewildering year it has been for Pinellas families as the school system reacts to outside forces.
Board members spent more than an hour debating how the new policy affects "nonzoned" students — those who find themselves not in their zoned school, either because the new map puts them outside their zone or they elected to stay in their current school last year when the system changed.
While the new policy guarantees that nonzoned students will be able to remain in their schools, board members said that's not what they intended when they voted for it last month. They said they intended for it to account for the possibility that school capacity issues might prevent a small number of nonzoned students from remaining where they are.
At times, board members did not seem to recall for sure what they approved last month. At other times they didn't know how to remedy the situation.
"You guys don't know what the policy is. How are we supposed to know?" asked Laurie Clark, a parent at Palm Harbor Elementary, one of the five soon-to-be closed schools.
"You can't move forward with this if you don't have a plan," she said.
Board members eventually took the advice of their attorney, Jim Robinson, who said there probably will be enough seats at schools to accommodate zoned and nonzoned students. If a capacity problem arises at some schools, Robinson said, "we'll come up with a fix that is defensible under board policy."
Added assistant superintendent Jim Madden: "We will make it work. It's what I get paid to do."
A handful of parents complained that the new zone boundaries seemed to make no sense. Some said they could see their current zoned school from their property yet the new map puts them in a school across town, requiring a bus ride.
Officials explained that such situations are inherent in any boundary setting process. Someone is going to be near the line, perhaps closer to a school in the next zone over.
Said board member Carol Cook: "The lines have to be drawn somewhere."