Faced with a budget crisis that grows worse by the week, the Pinellas School Board appears ready today to close several schools and end bus service for thousands of students.
But scores of parents, teachers and other residents are expected to weigh in first during a public hearing at district headquarters.
In interviews Monday, most board members said they were heavily inclined to close five elementary schools next year: Gulf Beaches, Kings Highway, North Ward, Palm Harbor and Rio Vista.
They also were strongly leaning toward a proposal to revoke bus service for elementary students who still attend the schools they got into under the old choice plan. These so-called grandfathered students elected not to move into their new zoned schools when the system changed last year.
Earlier, the board considered a harsher proposal to force grandfathered students into their zoned schools next year as a way to save about $8-million in busing costs. But a compromise surfaced last week after hundreds of parents complained in calls and e-mails, and board members were confronted with stories of as many as 18,000 kids being uprooted from their schools.
"To disrupt 40 percent of the elementary students in our district is more than I'm willing to grapple with," board member Carol Cook said Monday.
By allowing grandfathered students to stay in their schools but revoking their right to busing, the district still saves about $7-million, board members said.
The proposal would not affect students grandfathered into middle and high schools.
Another proposal to merge four middle schools into two also appeared likely to pass, based on interviews with board members. Coachman and Southside fundamental middle schools would be consolidated at other schools.
Coachman would move to Kennedy Middle and Southside to Madeira Beach Middle, but Southside students would be given the option of enrolling at nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle.
Most board members seemed resigned Monday to the idea of closing schools, a reaction to declining state revenue and dropping enrollment.
Pinellas has lost 10,000 students in the past five years and expects to lose 10,000 more by 2013.
"What we're doing is, we're coming in and breaking up a family. There's no scale that says that's okay," board member Robin Wikle said of the closings. But she added: "I think it has to be done."
Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea said legislative budget cuts leave the board with little choice when it comes to closings.
"Considering what Tallahassee's doing, I don't see how we can avoid it," she said.
If the Florida Senate's proposal prevails, Pinellas would have to cut more than $80-million. The House proposal would result in a cut of more than $60-million.