Thousands of Pinellas parents lined up in record numbers this year to get their kids into fundamental schools. Now School Board candidates are lining up to get their votes.
Expanding fundamental schools — high-performing public schools that mandate parental involvement — has emerged as a hot campaign issue. And in school board elections with typically low turnouts, motivated parents can be a powerful block.
"We need a couple more members on the board who are pro-fundamental," said fundamental school activist Bud Zimmer. If the board doesn't approve more such schools next year, "the fundamental parents are going to raise hell."
The candidates know this.
Seven of nine say they want more fundamental schools, though four offer important qualifiers. One is opposed. One is noncommittal.
Pinellas has nine fundamental schools with a total of 7,176 seats, but only about 800 were open for this fall. Parents submitted 8,450 applications. Many ended up on waiting lists.
"Parents are begging for their kids to get in," said Fonda Huff, the candidate most gung-ho about fundamentals.
At candidate forums, she notes her daughter drives from Largo to south St. Petersburg every day so her granddaughter can attend Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary.
Huff wants two more fundamental high schools — one in north county, one in south county — just like several other candidates. But she's also pushing for a second K-8 fundamental like the one created last year at Madeira Beach.
In tight times, more fundamentals also can help the district save money, Huff said.
Most don't offer bus service. With high test scores and few discipline problems, they require smaller staffs. And they attract families who would otherwise put their children into private schools, resulting in less state and local funding for the school district.
Candidate Brian Hawley is on the other extreme.
Fundamental schools can boot students who have discipline issues and/or parents who don't stay closely involved. Expanding them will create a two-tiered system, said Hawley, a language arts teacher at Largo Middle School.
"The fact that (fundamental schools) outperform their counterparts becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they are receiving a better population of student, and the other schools have a population with more endemic challenges," he wrote in a questionnaire for the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "This partitioned system cannot be the overall vision for public education."
Hawley said he wants the district to instill fundamental practices at all schools. He left himself an out if it doesn't.
"If we cannot have a complete system change, then I am for as many fundamental schools as we can get," Hawley said. "But I want a fundamental model in all schools … and I will fight to get that."
Fundamental schools are unique to Pinellas. The district opened the first one in 1976 and only intermittently added seats until a few years ago, when the numbers began to steadily rise. Last year, it added 1,480 seats — the most ever in one year.
Instead of satisfying demand, the expansion fueled it — and spurred creation of a potential political heavyweight.
Formed this past fall, the 3,000-member Fundamental Schools Advocacy Network got right to work lobbying for a new fundamental high school. The School Board politely told the group no, for the moment.
But the group is paying close attention to this year's elections.
Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, a former School Board member and a member of FAN's executive committee, said the group will not be endorsing candidates. But it recently compiled their statements on fundamental schools and e-mailed them to every member — along with a reminder to vote.
In the District 2 and District 6 races, they'll find the candidates' positions aren't polar opposites.
Huff's rival in District 2, retired principal Terry Krassner, also wants two more fundamental high schools.
Hawley's opponent, District 6 incumbent Linda Lerner, has registered concerns about the expansion of fundamentals in the past, but has been cautious on the campaign trail.
Lerner said she wants a discussion about more fundamental schools that is tied to a broader talk about other potential school changes. She said she is most open to a fundamental conversion for Boca Ciega High.
That school, along with Clearwater and Dunedin high schools, have all applied to become fundamentals.
The five candidates in the District 3 and District 7 races all have different variations on yes.
District 3 incumbent Peggy O'Shea said she is open to expansion but wants to look at it in the context of other high school programs. For example, there is demand for a third International Baccalaureate program, she said. And some people are interested in both.
At an Aug. 17 workshop, the board is expected to start detailed discussions about student assignment issues. Expanding fundamentals — or any other specialized program — affects attendance zones for many other schools, and that has to be taken into consideration, O'Shea said.
"It doesn't really matter where the (fundamental) school is as long as it doesn't have a negative impact on the rest of the district," she said.
O'Shea's opponent, retired teacher Greg Hunsinger, said he would support a new fundamental middle school in mid county. But he said he worries about how expansion would effect low-performing students, and the non-fundamental schools that may end up taking them.
In District 7, attorney Keisha Bell has made establishing a fundamental high school in south county a top priority. She said she understands its value, having attended a fundamental elementary.
Her opponent Jim Jackson said he supports expanding fundamentals but has reservations about overselling the concept. Fundamentals aren't for everyone, and some parents can't keep up with the demands, he said.
"You can't just change every school into a fundamental school," he said. "And I don't think you should rush to do that."
District 7 candidate Lew Williams said he has a strong attachment to the fundamental model, since both his children attended such schools. He thinks the next fundamental high school should be in north county, but wants to see more data.
Williams also said he is concerned about the impact of fundamentals on other successful programs that tend to draw motivated students and involved families. He likes what the district is already considering: expanding some fundamental concepts such as parental contracts to traditional schools.
"There are people who would state that many of the kids in fundamental schools are your leaders and role models and they siphon off from other schools," Williams said. "I would not want to oversaturate the area with fundamental schools."