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School flip-flops puzzle

Fold. Flip-flop. Backtrack. Retreat. Whatever you want to call it, the Pinellas school district has done it a lot in the past six months.

Mandatory uniforms? Maybe not. New school start times? Forget it.

Moving the International Baccalaureate program out of Palm Harbor University High? Never mind.

The most recent example came Monday, when a majority of School Board members said no to superintendent Julie Janssen's plan to merge two south Pinellas elementary schools.

The effect: a growing public perception that the district doesn't do its homework. Or doesn't have the spine to stick to a tough decision. Or both.

"It appeared to me to be an utterly dysfunctional system," said Rich Hollenberg, a parent at Lakeview Fundamental Elementary, which Janssen had proposed melding with Gulfport Elementary.

"I'm sure it makes people feel less confident (in the district) and I can't blame people for that feeling," said board member Janet Clark. "That's why decisions have been shot down, because we haven't felt confident about it."

Board members and Janssen say in many cases, the same thing is to blame: a flawed decision-making process that hasn't allowed district staff to gather the data and input it needs from parents, teachers and students to put more solid proposals forward.

Board members initially told Janssen they didn't want to hear about something the district was considering from the St. Petersburg Times or an angry constituent. But by putting half-baked proposals before the board first, the district has left parents and teachers feeling left out and run over.

"I'm taking it on the chin because I can't say, 'Guys, this is what we're working on,’" Janssen said. "Is it the best way? Absolutely not."

A board subcommittee is working on decision-making guidelines that it hopes will prevent the kind of localized rebellions that have dogged the roll-out of Janssen's student assignment plan. The board is scheduled to discuss it at a workshop Dec. 14.

In the meantime, some parents and teachers are growing cynical.

The term that comes up time and again: blind-sided.

Teachers and parents at Southern Oak Elementary in Largo said they didn't realize the district was seriously considering a structural change for their school and neighboring Walsingham Elementary — turning one into a school for grades K-2 and the other into a school for grades 3-5 — until School Board member Linda Lerner met with them in mid-October.

Then, said Southern Oak parent April Powers, "everybody went into freak-out mode."

"It's been frustrating," said Palm Harbor University High parent Liz Valletti. "I understand you have to come up with proposals. But if you're making major changes like that, the process needs to be longer, and you have to talk with all the stakeholders."

After Janssen proposed moving Palm Harbor's IB program to Countryside High, Palm Harbor parents organized a fierce resistance. They swarmed School Board members with calls and e-mails, and challenged every statistic they considered wrong or misleading.

"We felt like the parents ... were doing the homework Dr. Janssen should have done," Valletti said.

The fight isn't over. Janssen agreed to keep IB at Palm Harbor, but said it had to be downsized. That has sparked a whole new skirmish that won't be resolved until Tuesday's vote on the entire student assignment plan.

Meanwhile, the retreat on IB created a new complication: what to give Countryside?

The district scrambled to come up with a heavyweight alternative to IB — and fashioned an integrated technology program that would include offerings in cyber security and video gaming. The School Board appears inclined to approve it.

But Countryside parents have grumbled about being an afterthought. And even some board members are squeamish.

"I have mixed feelings about this one," Lerner said at a workshop where details of the plan were unveiled. "For about three weeks of work ... it's a good proposal."

In the case of the Lakeview-Gulfport merger, a bad process for getting public input allowed Lakeview parents to dominate the debate and make it seem more lopsided than it really was, said Gulfport Elementary parent Jennifer Salmon.

Many Gulfport parents did want the school to become a fundamental, even if they too did not want Lakeview students to be displaced, Salmon said. But because Lakeview parents were so vocal, the perception was Gulfport parents didn't want to go fundamental, or didn't care.

Had the district held publicly advertised meetings at each school, they would have clearly heard what Gulfport parents wanted — and may have heard better options than the one that crashed and burned, said Salmon, who is a Gulfport City Council member.

"It didn't have to go this way," she said. "It went this way because it was a flawed plan."

Both Janssen and School Board members agree they need to do things better — and say they're on it.

"We need to stop putting the superintendent in that tailspin," said board chairwoman Carol Cook. "I hope in the future we will operate differently."

Member Robin Wikle said the change may mean the School Board will have to give up something in order to give staff the leeway to fully vet ideas before they present them.

"We need to maybe check our egos at the door a little bit. We don't have to know everything right away," she said. "When a parent comes up to me in Publix and says, 'Robin, did you know the superintendent is doing this?' I need to say, 'You know, I haven't heard that yet. But I'm looking forward to the next workshop where I can hear more.' "

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

Backing off, backing down

In the past six months, the Pinellas school district has killed, postponed or watered down several proposals. Among them:

• School start times. In June, the School Board overturned a

decision made two weeks earlier to change school start times. Janssen said the change was needed to save money, but after dozens of elementary school parents raised a ruckus, the board said the first decision was rushed.

• Magnet teacher pay. In July, the district quietly postponed a plan to cut hefty salary supplements for high school teachers in four marquee magnet programs. District officials dropped the bomb in May, prompting an outcry from teachers and parents. It also got a stern rebuke from the teachers union, which noted the extra pay couldn't be nixed unilaterally because it had been negotiated into contracts.

• Moving IB. In October, Janssen backed away from initial plans to move the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High to Countryside High, saying it could stay but would have to be downsized. Her decision came days after 300 IB supporters packed an auditorium in opposition.

• School uniforms. In October, at the School Board's direction, Janssen eased off her earlier call for mandatory school uniforms in grades K-8. That proposal seemed to generate as many supporters as critics, but several School Board members wanted more flexibility. The plan now is to tweak the dress code in the spring.

• School restructuring. Also in October, Janssen pulled the plug on a proposal to transform Walsingham and Southern Oak elementaries by turning one into a school for grades K-2 and the other into a school for grades 3-5. After parents and teachers signed petitions and questioned the research behind the idea, Janssen promised a more thorough airing next year.

• School merger. On Monday, Janssen backed off plans to merge Lakeview Fundamental and Gulfport elementary schools into a new, bigger fundamental school after a majority of board members indicated opposition. Lakeview parents rallied relentlessly, saying the merger would hurt one of the district's highest-performing schools.

School flip-flops puzzle 12/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 6, 2010 9:07am]

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