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Pinellas school board tosses plan to merge schools

The Pinellas County School Board on Monday shot down a plan to create more fundamental school seats in south Pinellas by merging an existing fundamental school with one that's high poverty and struggling.

At issue: superintendent Julie Janssen's controversial proposal to meld Lakeview Fundamental Elementary in St. Petersburg with Gulfport Elementary — and, in the process, move Gulfport's school-within-a-school Montessori program into the Lakeview building.

At a workshop Monday, new board members Lew Williams and Terry Krassner joined Janet Clark and Linda Lerner in forming a clear majority in opposition. The result: a reprieve for at least a year.

"I favor keeping things the way they are," Lerner said. "I don't want to lose another south county neighborhood school."

The district has long waiting lists for its fundamental schools, which mandate parental involvement and have the power to boot students who don't follow the rules. They boast some of the highest test scores and lowest suspension rates in Pinellas.

The Lakeview/Gulfport plan was but one plank in Janssen's plan to create top-flight academic programs throughout the district. The board will vote on her overall plan next week. But it was a plank that drew plenty of heat.

Lakeview parents have rallied against the merger for weeks, worried the transition would weaken the program and that Gulfport parents — who would get first dibs on new seats — would be unwilling or unable to meet the strict demands of a fundamental school.

"E-mails are flying. Everyone's ecstatic," Lakeview parent Steve Verano said just a few hours after the board debate. "It took me a few minutes to actually believe it … I didn't get a feeling there was any give on the part of Dr. Janssen."

Janssen tried to offer a Plan B. So did board chairwoman Carol Cook. But a majority of the board didn't go for those either.

Janssen proposed leaving Lakeview intact; moving the Montessori program into the building that housed Gulf Beaches Elementary until budget cuts forced its closure in 2009; and phasing in a fundamental program into Gulfport next year, beginning with the kindergarten cohort.

Lerner said that didn't make sense given structural issues that led Gulf Beaches to be considered for closure. Krassner said she worried about the additional cost in another tight budget year.

Cook proposed leaving Lakeview alone, keeping the Montessori at Gulfport and phasing a fundamental into the remaining seats. But that didn't allay concerns about struggling students being forced out of Gulfport and into neighboring schools that are already swamped by them.

Neither Lakeview nor Gulfport is totally in the clear. While Janssen agreed to take the proposed merger out of her student assignment plan, it's still possible one or both schools could be part of a future proposal to expand fundamental seats.

In related developments, the board clarified its positions on other pieces of Janssen's plan, agreeing to:

• Curtail much of the busing to Osceola Fundamental High School, but keep it intact at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.

• End an unwritten policy to give Jamerson Elementary students priority preference into Thurgood Marshall, as if they were in a feeder program.

• Support creation of a new fundamental school in north Pinellas by reopening Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater, which closed in 2009.

• Support creation of an integrated technology program at Countryside High that would include offerings in cyber security, video gaming and television production, and consider a gifted program there beginning in 2012-13.

The board also directed Janssen to essentially come up with a minimal enrollment number that would ensure the integrity of the International Baccalaureate program at overcrowded Palm Harbor University High.

The enrollment now is about 150 per grade, but Janssen and some board members have pushed to downsize IB so there is more room for traditional students who live nearby.

Janssen said it's hard to know how much smaller the program will be, given the uncertainties of rezoning next year and the draw of new programs at other schools. But she said her team will look at the available data and come up with a number.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas school board tosses plan to merge schools 11/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 12:09am]

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