ST. PETERSBURG — Until a few days ago, Angela Haught had heard there was a chance her 5-year-old son may have to go to a new school next year.
Another parent had told her of the talk going around that Gulfport kids would be moving to Lakeview Fundamental Elementary, a building about 2 1/2 miles away.
The 36-year-old mother, whose son is a kindergartener in the Montessori program at Gulfport Elementary, wasn't too concerned. It was probably just talk, she thought, until she picked her son up from school Thursday and ran into Lakeview parents picketing outside the school.
Haught was appalled.
"If the school district had handled this differently, then I don't think that this would have been a big deal," she said. "I think they handled it all wrong."
What began as a simple proposal to swap buildings and, Pinellas school officials say, help programs at both schools flourish, has ignited passions of people in both school communities.
"This is just one of those social experiments done with other people's kids," said Alexander Balanda, 43, whose daughter is in first grade at Lakeview.
He was one of about 30 parents and students who gathered outside Gulfport on Thursday protesting the meeting of a "transition team" set up to discuss the issue.
Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen is proposing that Lakeview, an A-rated fundamental school with 340 students, move to the larger D-rated Gulfport Elementary, a neighborhood school with 626 students. School officials say the switch would allow the new, combined school to help fill the growing demand for fundamental seats.
Gulfport Elementary's Montessori program, meanwhile, would get its own building at Lakeview.
Board members offered a tentative thumbs-up on Janssen's proposal Thursday. They are not scheduled to take a final vote on the plan until Dec. 7, and by that time the board will have two new members.
Incoming board member Terry Krassner said she doesn't feel comfortable dismantling a successful program. Candidates Jim Jackson and Lew Williams, who are in a runoff election, also said they favor keeping Lakeview where it is.
The Lakeview parents have been vocal about their objections. On Thursday they carried signs that read "Don't Undo Lakeview," "Lakeview is our home," and "Lakeview and Gulfport Elementary deserve better."
They noted that the swap could displace many Gulfport families who may decide that the fundamental model isn't for them.
"We don't think this will benefit anyone," said Kristie Dowling-Verano. "Our kids are best suited at the Lakeview building where they are now. … This is not about being against Gulfport."
About four to five staff members from Gulfport countered the Lakeview protest with impromptu signs of their own: "Give our kids a chance" and "Gulfport is good enough to go fundamental."
Gulfport teachers said they've spent the past few weeks educating parents about the fundamental model and encouraging them to consider it.
"We have good kids and we have good families and they deserve to have that choice," said second-grade Gulfport teacher Amy Robles. "We were hoping it would be more bridge building."
Haught said the situation is even more complicated because many Gulfport parents still don't know what's going on.
She said she understands some of Lakeview parents' concerns but wishes they would give the swap idea a fair chance. She likes the idea of the Montessori school getting its own building and her son having a shot at a fundamental seat.
"I do understand other parents being upset … but to go and protest and say some of the things they said was inappropriate," she said. "Sometimes change is better."
The two sides agree on one thing: School officials need to communicate more to help both school communities understand what's happening.
"I really do hope we can come together," Dowling-Verano said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.