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Proposal to move some Pinellas elementary students has parents riled

Like ripping off a Band-Aid.

Pinellas School Board members have used that phrase many times to describe what it will be like to end a policy that allowed students to stay in schools for which they aren't zoned.

Last week, they heard what the reaction to the ripping will be like.

"Are you stinking kidding me!" wrote Brenda Yeater, a parent at Cross Bayou Elementary in Pinellas Park.

"I don't know whether to rage or cry," said Pam Lasher, a parent at Safety Harbor Elementary.

"Ridiculous," said Cassie Riddick, a parent at Sexton Elementary in St. Petersburg.

The three are among many who had strong reactions after hearing last week that the school board may send their kids — and perhaps 3,500 more — back to their zoned schools next year. For many of those who were grandfathered into out-of-zone schools under the district's school choice plan, the board's reconsideration feels like a broken promise.

"They should honor the commitment they've made to my daughter … and let her stay in her school," Lasher said.

Board members know the decision won't be easy.

"You have to draw the line somewhere (and) we should have drawn it long ago," said board member Janet Clark. "Now people feel like we're going back on our word when it's the times that are getting to us."

Said board member Peggy O'Shea: "They don't want to be moved. That's a legitimate concern. On the other hand, our policies change as needed. You have to look at all the students."

At issue are well-intentioned policies that created unintended consequences.

When the district ended its controversial choice plan in 2008, it allowed thousands of students to stay in the schools chosen by their parents. It also allowed many siblings to follow. The idea was to spare kids the upheaval of being moved to another school.

It did that. But, district officials say, it also shut out other students from schools in their zones, increased costs for busing and portable classrooms, and made achieving class size restrictions set forth by a state constitutional amendment even tougher.

Mark Pezzo is among those feeling the sting.

In September, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor and his girlfriend bought a house next door to McMullen-Booth Elementary in Clearwater. But when they tried to enroll her two children, they were told it was full.

They weren't told the school has 144 out-of-zone students.

"We bought this house in this school zone so the kids could go to this school," Pezzo said from his living room, where he can see the school playground. "So the idea that kids that aren't in this school zone are taking seats our kids would take is, well, frustrating."

He offered this solution: "Let kids go to a school out of zone so long as kids who live in the zone and want to go there aren't pushed out. That's just a no-brainer."

Marshall Touchton, the district's demographic specialist, estimates 3,000 to 3,500 students would be affected next year by a change in the zoning policy.

Not all are vestiges of the choice program. Some got in through the district's annual "open enrollment" process, which allows parents to choose other schools if seats are available. Some were moved because their zoned schools were crowded.

The proposed change will go before the school board Nov. 8 for the first of two votes and would take effect next fall. It will not affect students in magnet and fundamental schools.

For parents who don't want to be moved, there is a glimmer of hope: Most of the students grandfathered during the last year of the choice plan are now in fourth grade. Interim superintendent John Stewart will recommend they be allowed to finish their final year in their elementary school. Board members say they're willing to talk about it.

The potential policy shift is tied to what could be another big change: new zoning boundaries for elementary schools. The proposed zoning maps should be available the week of Oct. 31. Until then, parents won't know where their out-of-zone children may end up.

For parents who feel the choice they were given is being rudely ripped away, the real issue is keeping their children in their current schools.

Riddick has a fifth-grader and two first-graders at Sexton Elementary, which she said was "more welcoming" than their zoned school.

"We have history here," she said. "I'd rather stay where they're comfortable."

Yeater, the Cross Bayou parent, didn't like her zoned school because it continued to fall short of federal academic standards.

Cross Bayou has a family atmosphere, she said. And programs for students with hearing and vision disabilities give the school a special diversity she wants her three children to experience.

Pam Lasher said many kids at her zoned school don't speak English as their first language, so teachers spend more time with them, leaving less time for the rest. She said her daughter, a fourth-grader, will be "devastated" if she has to leave Safety Harbor Elementary.

Clark said she wishes the district could accommodate everybody. But it can't.

"All I can say is, situations change. That's just life."

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

Proposal to move some Pinellas elementary students has parents riled 10/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2011 12:12am]
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