Over the protests of parents, the Pinellas County School Board unanimously voted this past week to close seven elementary schools and rezone thousands of children. That's just one round of moves aimed at balancing the budget for the school district, which has lost millions of dollars this year along with all other school districts. We spoke with board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea about how she arrived at her vote and what she expects to happen next.
How hard is it for you to be making these decisions regarding the boundaries and the school closures?
They're really two separate issues. The school closures is tough. You get parents who are so involved in their school and it's part of the community they live in. You hate to take that away. We looked at all kinds of opportunities to avoid that. But the bottom line came when we looked at the budget and the budget projections and the cuts coming from the state. It just became impossible. We haven't even reached all the budget cuts we have to make yet.
Some parents pointed out you were closing schools that are well regarded and have strong community support, whereas some other schools might not have had that same level of success. How do you pick which schools you must close?
Our student assignment department looked at it in terms of where kids are and where we have other schools nearby to put them in. We looked from a financial perspective at the cost of running those buildings, risk management, what it costs to insure those buildings, what our maintenance costs are, those kinds of things. The ones we closed are all small schools that had under 400 students, whereas when you see newer elementary schools in Florida today, they're built to house 750 to 800 kids. That's what the state requires you build from now on.
So it didn't have as much to do with whether the school was an A school or whether it had a strong PTA?
No, because there are a lot of schools with strong PTAs. And that's wonderful. I mean, they're a great asset to the kids and the school. But when it comes down to it, if we're trying to revamp our transportation and our zones, we've got to look at where the children are and where our schools are and how to best accommodate that need.
How do you soothe some of the raw emotions that came out during these hearings?
Well, a couple of things. First of all, to be open and honest about what is going on, that's the first thing we have to do. Communicate what their future options are. And we worked through some of that (Tuesday) with the grandfathering issue. The school closing folks, they had a preliminary map of the new zones, so they can get an idea of where they will go to school. But it's a draft. It's not final yet. ...
The other thing I will say in regard to the parents, even though they were fighting for their child, their school, that's understandable. They're good parents doing what they feel is best. They have all been so understanding of the budget implications and what we're dealing with, every one of them, even though they didn't like the decision, how it affected them. They were extremely understanding. It was unbelievable. They realized the state's cuts have been huge and dramatic, and the projections coming out of Tallahassee get worse every day. And I told them, keep fighting for what you want.
Now that you have made these decisions ... you're going to have to move kids around and save money with transportation. Is that just another headache for you?
Don't forget, part of this problem is the years of choice that we had, where every child was assigned individually based on their choice of schools. And that came about as an agreement with the federal court. ... Those are now over and we can now go back to a different assignment system. What we're moving toward is what we had before choice ...
The difference between rezoning back then and today is, back then when rezoning had to take place because a school was overcrowded or whatever reason, the whole neighborhood moved together. So the kids moved with their friends. ... Under choice, each child was assigned individually. If a school was full, he got sent to where there was a space. It might be on the other side of the county. And we had to run a bus to the other side of the county for them.
After several years of that, kids were scattered all over at the elementary level. It was amazing when you started to look at where they were. This will do a whole lot to bring them closer to home. What we said was, we are going to tell everybody, here's your new zoned school, and this is where you go to school unless you opt for the school you're currently in by a certain date.
And you will not provide transportation for that anymore, though?
Right. So we save the transportation, and it will move more kids back into their zoned schools than if we just left everybody without transportation. First of all, some of them may choose to come back because it may be what they want. And we have heard from some people who say, "I'd rather be closer to home. I'm here because that's where I was put. But I'd really rather have my child closer."
There's a mix out there of who wants to come back and who doesn't. And you're never really sure of what somebody is going to decide until they have to make that choice. ... With the declining enrollment, there will be a little more spaces to play with in some areas.
Once this is all in place, will this be the end of the closings and the movings for a while?
Well, no. We're still projected to lose another 10,000 students over the next several years.
Ten thousand students is a lot of school buildings, when you think about it in those terms. Now, we will watch to see where the losses are. They were saying we might have more school closings.
What we asked is they try to create these new zones to accommodate future closings, at least for a while, so we don't have to shift everybody again for a long time. That's our ultimate goal, to minimize that and create more stability for the parents.
Years prior to choice, when we were in a high-growth mode, kids got rezoned all the time. And under the court order, the kids in south county were rezoned every two years and moved around. So, you know, it's for different reasons now. It's a different era. But that rezoning occurs in districts frequently. We're trying to minimize it as much as possible. We don't want to do it, either. It's not something we get up one day and say, "Hey, let's move everyone around." So we're trying to get everybody where they need to be and where we have the space to accommodate everybody, minimize the bus routes.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.