Pinellas students, we hope you like khaki. Because it's looking more and more likely you'll be wearing it a lot next year.
With one strong exception, a clear majority of Pinellas County School Board members indicated Tuesday that they support a plan for mandatory school uniforms in grades K-8.
"It's a great, clear message . . . that we're about academics," board member Robin Wikle said at a workshop Tuesday.
"It doesn't take the individuality away," said board member Peggy O'Shea. "It just says you're here for a reason."
But board member Linda Lerner said uniforms were only "window dressing" to mask deeper, tougher problems.
"Our fundamental schools are doing just fine without uniforms," Lerner said, noting that some of the district's highest-performing schools had at best a "hybrid" uniform policy. "What are we doing with disruptive students? That's the issue."
Superintendent Julie Janssen called for school uniforms two weeks ago as one part of a far-reaching, multifaceted proposal to boost student achievement. Currently, 23 Pinellas schools require uniforms, but Janssen's plan would mandate them in every elementary and middle school, beginning in 2011-12. It would also make Pinellas the first district in the Tampa Bay area to have such a policy.
By uniform, the district doesn't mean a Marine's dress blues and spit-shined boots. An Osceola County policy that the Pinellas School Board used as a starting point Tuesday prescribes long or short-sleeved, navy blue or white collared shirts for all students, with long pants or walking shorts for boys and walking shorts, slacks or skorts for girls.
In coming weeks, Pinellas district staff will craft a draft policy, using input from board members and, possibly, parents who are expected to speak at public meetings next week on the student achievement plan. The board is scheduled to review the draft at another workshop Oct. 28.
On Tuesday, though, even members who were lukewarm to the idea said they probably would not block it.
Some said it will keep teachers and principals from having to serve as the fashion police. Others said it will take away some of the distinctions between rich kids and poor kids.
"I'm generally okay with it," said board member Carol Cook. "My mind isn't set in stone (but) I don't think it's that big a deal. We're just going to tighten up the dress code."
"I don't object," said board chair Janet Clark. "But I don't think it's a silver bullet."
Clark's suggestions included making belts mandatory and allowing schools to choose their colors. She also raised a question: Why not include high schools in the policy, too? Because "we want to live," cracked Wikle to a roomful of laughter.
Too big a battle, Janssen said, in all seriousness. "We just felt that was a fight that would take a lot of attention away from what we're trying to do," which is focus on academics, she said.
Several board members raised concerns about a plank in the Osceola policy that bars students from having visible body piercings, "extremely garish" hair colors or unusual hair styles like Mohawks. The policy also prohibits "makeup that is not within the acceptable standards for the school or community."
"Too subjective," Clark said. "I don't know that it causes as much disruption with the students as it does with the adults."
Pinellas' policy should allow principals to use their discretion, said Cook.
"If it's disruptive, the principal needs to deal with it," she said.
The board did not discuss the fallout for students who want to opt out of a uniform policy. They briefly discussed cost.
The policy from Osceola County, near Orlando, says no student shall be penalized for failing to follow the policy due to financial hardship. It also says each school's principal and school advisory council shall develop programs to make sure those students get uniforms, through donations, re-use or some other means.
O'Shea said the cost is reasonable.
But "if people can't afford the transition, we'll work with them," she said. "Community groups around the county will step in."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.