Pinellas to close seven schools, cut back bus service

Cathy Houck, a teacher’s assistant at Palm Harbor Elementary, speaks during the hearing to close seven Pinellas schools. Palm Harbor was included in the closings that were approved later.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Cathy Houck, a teacher’s assistant at Palm Harbor Elementary, speaks during the hearing to close seven Pinellas schools. Palm Harbor was included in the closings that were approved later.

LARGO — Seven small schools will close and thousands of students will go without bus service after the Pinellas School Board approved a plan Tuesday that only begins to fill the district's deepening budget hole.

The board's 7-0 vote capped a public debate that lasted less than two months — a short time considering the magnitude of the issues involved. More than 3,000 students will be displaced by the closings, and the busing changes affect an additional 17,000.

But officials said the timing was driven by the need to get the roster of schools set before the student assignment process begins Jan. 26, and by the fast-paced nature of a worldwide financial crisis that is hitting home in school districts across Florida.

When Pinellas first proposed the measures in mid November, district officials were stunned by news from Tallahassee indicating they needed to cut spending by $40-million for 2009-10. By Tuesday, those projections had surged to the $60-million to $80-million range.

Tuesday's actions were just a start, totaling about $13-million in cuts.

"None of us are happy with the idea of closing small, successful schools," board member Janet Clark said. "That said, we have a lot of stuff that we're going to have to be cutting."

The board will schedule a workshop soon to consider additional cuts, and superintendent Julie Janssen has said she is looking everywhere for savings.

Among her early ideas: furloughs for the district's 15,000 employees, cuts in administration, across-the-board reductions in individual school budgets, employee cuts in the transportation department, returning hundreds of leased portable classrooms, tightening the district's construction practices and negotiating a more affordable health insurance plan.

Questions raised by parents in recent days led to yet another idea: possibly selling more than 30 vacant district-owned parcels around the county.

"We are very aware of where we need to continue to cut," Janssen told a packed room. "I want you to know that we are not blindly going forward in a status quo. We are looking at every single item that we spend money on."

The scope of the district's financial problems all but smothered last-ditch efforts by supporters at several schools to persuade the board to change its mind.

Board members voted to close Gulf Beaches, Kings Highway, North Ward, Palm Harbor and Rio Vista elementaries, plus Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools. An eighth school, Clearview Avenue Elementary, will close as previously planned.

Southside's program will move to Madeira Beach Middle and Coachman will move to Kennedy Middle. The newly located schools will continue to operate exclusively as fundamental schools. In addition, the new program at the Madeira Beach campus will turn Madeira Beach Elementary into a fundamental school.

Southside students can ask to be moved instead to nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School. But in a new wrinkle, the district said Tuesday that their admission to Marshall won't be automatic.

Assistant superintendent Jim Madden said letters will go home within the next two weeks to Southside and Coachman families. They will be asked to indicate whether they favor going to Madeira, Kennedy or Marshall. Using that survey information, the district will get a better idea of whether it will need a lottery system to place students at Marshall, which can grow by only about 200 more seats.

The board also voted to revoke busing for students who next year want to remain enrolled in schools outside their zone.

The vote affects about 17,000 students in regular elementary schools. Last year, when the board changed to a new system of zoned schools, those students elected to remain in schools they got into under the old choice plan rather than move to their new zoned schools.

Initially, the board contemplated forcing all of these so-called "grandfathered" students into their zoned elementary schools next year as a way to save on busing costs. But board members backed off after hundreds of parents complained.

The compromise: They can stay in their existing schools, but the district won't provide bus service.

The board changed the busing game for some other students as well. Beginning next year, all high school students who don't attend their zoned schools will receive only arterial bus service, which is less convenient with fewer stops. The same will hold true for students attending Thurgood Marshall Middle and Osceola High.

The district's practice regarding siblings will change, too. Previously, a younger sibling such as an incoming kindergartener could join an older sibling at any regular school. Now, all students entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade will be assigned to their zoned schools. If parents want to keep an older and younger sibling together in the same school, they will — with rare exceptions — have to do it at the zoned school.

The sibling policy at fundamental and magnet schools, however, will remain unchanged.

The district will accomplish the changes by first assigning all grandfathered students to their zoned school, then giving them the option of returning to their grandfathered school, where they can finish out.

Tuesday's actions left hundreds of families at the soon-to-be closed schools in limbo. The district has yet to announce a detailed plan for deciding where and how they would be relocated.

Some of the answers will depend on a new elementary school zone map, which has to be redrawn to account for the closings. The district released a draft version of a new map Tuesday; the board will vote on a final version Feb. 10.

The uncertainty had many parents urging the district to provide more stability in the future. But officials said there were no guarantees in an era when tight budgets and declining enrollment will continue to pressure the district to make adjustments.

"I don't think you have all the answers yet," Laurie Clark, a parent at Palm Harbor Elementary, told the board.

"Where will my child go to school? 'Somewhere' isn't an appropriate answer."

For the latest in education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com schools.

What happened

The Pinellas School Board:

• Closed five elementary schools with fewer than 500 students (Savings: $4.2-million)

• Closed two fundamental middle schools and moved their programs to other schools. (Savings: $1.9-million)

• Allowed 17,000 students to remain in schools outside their zones but denied them bus service. (Savings $7-million)

• Approved a new zone map for middle schools.

• Released a draft map for new elementary school zones to be approved Feb. 10.

Pinellas to close seven schools, cut back bus service 01/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 12:00pm]

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