The debate about more fundamental high schools in Pinellas County is about to get really thorny.
Superintendent Julie Janssen said she would not recommend the creation of a fundamental high school in south Pinellas County, agreeing with some black community leaders who fear negative repercussions at high schools that are already struggling.
The only south county high school that has applied to become a fundamental is Boca Ciega High in Gulfport. But Janssen said her concerns about a fundamental conversion extended to all south county high schools "because of the ripple effect it'd have on all the others."
Fundamental supporters were not happy to hear that.
"I think it's a School Board decision, and it seems as if Dr. Janssen is closing the door before the workshop," said Jennifer Crockett, who will have two children in Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School this fall. "If opportunities aren't provided to families who want this, it's going to hurt the district."
Crockett was referring to a School Board workshop coming Aug. 17, when members are set to begin a detailed discussion about the possibility of more fundamental high schools. The only one now is Osceola High in Seminole.
Fundamental supporters, organized and energized, have been pressing for an expansion for nearly a year. Only one of nine School Board candidates rejects the idea. But there's no doubt that creating more fundamentals — high-performing schools that mandate parent involvement — involves potentially complicated tradeoffs, especially in south Pinellas.
Janssen's position came to light during a Wednesday meeting of a small but influential group, the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students.
Group leader Watson Haynes and Goliath Davis, a high-ranking St. Petersburg city administrator, said they told Janssen in a meeting a few months ago that the conversion of D-rated Boca Ciega to a fundamental school would hurt F-rated Gibbs High, which already has among the highest numbers of at-risk students in the district.
"Kids with discipline issues would be shifted somewhere … and it would be Gibbs," Haynes said. "When you take discipline issues and you put them all in one school, the principal is not able to manage."
Haynes and Davis said they would have the same concerns about any south county high school proposed for conversion. So far, only Boca Ciega has applied, but some think Lakewood and Dixie Hollins, both D schools, may be considered.
In north Pinellas, Clearwater High and Dunedin High have applied.
Janssen said another reason she would not recommend Boca Ciega is because it's coming under intense state oversight this fall. Lakewood and Dixie Hollins are too, joining Gibbs, which came under state scrutiny last year.
"That would be too much for the faculty to handle," Janssen said.
But "we had an 87 percent approval for it," said Boca Ciega social studies teacher William White, referring to a faculty vote in May on whether to go fundamental. "We already knew we'd get state intervention when we took that vote. We are about as gung-ho as you can be."
Both White and Dan Rothenberger, president of the parent teacher student association at Boca Ciega, said the arguments being raised against conversion are legitimate. "But the parents want it," White said.
Rothenberger said his group talked extensively about how a fundamental model could be applied with more flexibility at Boca Ciega, so that children with single parents or parents working two or more jobs would be more likely to stay in the mix.
"My hope is that (Boca Ciega) would go fundamental and all the kids going there would be able to stay and do well, and that it wouldn't affect other schools negatively," he said.
But "realistically, maybe it would."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.