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A Times Editorial

A better idea on school costs

Give the new Pinellas County School Board credit. Its members are speaking honestly about simultaneously correcting mistakes of the past, addressing an immediate budget crisis and preparing for a leaner district with less money and fewer students. The board has the right medicine in cutting busing costs to save money for the classroom, but it needs to adjust the formula.

The proposal up for a vote Tuesday is to end all grandfathering for elementary students who opted out of the new student assignment plan and save the associated busing costs. That would force some 18,000 students to leave their current schools next year and move to zoned schools closer to home, and the proposal already has triggered a backlash from angry parents that will be difficult to overcome.

Here's a better idea that would save more money and offer more flexibility: End busing for grandfathered students at all levels, including elementary, middle school and high school. Those students could choose to move to their zoned schools, or they could stay at their current school and find another way to get there. That would give families more options, and it would save the school district an estimated $12-million.

These are the hard choices that face a School Board that appears to have the backbone that has been lacking in the past. When the old board overhauled a failed choice system last year, it refused to make the tough decisions in adopting a new zone system and tried to please everyone. It allowed students to stay in their current schools — to be grandfathered. It promised them bus transportation, and it promised that their siblings could attend when the time came. That muted the complaints, but it was irresponsible. It added layers of busing and costs on to a district that could not afford it. That money should have been spent in the classroom, particularly in schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students.

Now the economic situation is even worse, and all of those promises cannot possibly be kept. The board must cut $48-million from next year's budget and deal with a lengthening recession, declining property tax revenues and shrinking student enrollments. The new board gets points for boldness in proposing to outright eliminate grandfathering for elementary students, but it needs to save more money, spread the pain of cutting busing costs and maintain more continuity in the elementary schools.

It would be fairer to allow all students, elementary through high school, who are currently grandfathered at a school to finish there if they find their own transportation. Limit the grandfathering only to current students, not their siblings. Let all families consider their own options and make choices that are best for them and their children. And this choice doesn't require a Solomonic weighing by the district of the interests of grade-schoolers against older students.

Yes, this alternative would place a hardship on families who want their children to stay in their grandfathered schools and are hard pressed to find their own transportation. But the extent of the fallout is not entirely predictable. Surveys show parents want elementary students in schools closer to home, and it would seem older students would have more options than younger ones to find other ways to get to school.

Regardless of what the School Board does Tuesday, the status quo is no longer an option. Neither is making political decisions based on emotion instead of the bottom line. In an era of declining student enrollments and budgets, schools will close and attendance zones will have to be redrawn often to reflect change — and there can be no grandfathering in those cases. The busing costs in Pinellas have been too high for years, and every dollar possible needs to be earmarked for the classroom.

The board will continue to confront challenge after challenge in this economic recession. It has done well so far in putting distance between itself and the dysfunction of the past. Here is a chance to correct some old mistakes, maintain some flexibility for families and significantly reduce busing costs.

A better idea on school costs 12/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:29pm]
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