The financial picture keeps getting bleaker for Pinellas County schools, and the School Board needs to save every dollar it can as it votes Tuesday on closing seven schools and forcing thousands of elementary students to change schools this fall. But it also needs to find cost-effective ways to accommodate more students and parents.
First, it makes sense to acknowledge the district cannot afford to bus elementary students who opted out of the new student assignment plan and are grandfathered into their current schools. But those students should get to stay in their schools if they can get there on their own. The goal is to save tax money by reducing busing costs, not needlessly disrupt the lives of students whose families can provide transportation. Board members have begun to entertain this idea, and the district ought to be able to make it work.
Second, the board should be more ambitious and extend the same concept to middle and high schools. Busing should be eliminated for middle and high school students who are grandfathered into schools outside their new attendance zones. Let them stay only if they can find their own way there. There is no way to justify the busing expense as the district's financial numbers continue to worsen. School budget planners now estimate there will be spending cuts in the range of $69-million to $82-million next year. In this economic crisis, the district cannot afford busing those students when the money needs to be redirected to the classroom.
Another reality in an era of declining enrollments and budgets is that some schools need to close. But there is a fact hasn't been discussed enough: For more than a generation, Pinellas schools were focused on court-ordered busing for desegregation. Now that neighborhood schools are back, many of them are rapidly resegregating.
Housing patterns may be segregated, but our lives are not. Even in a time of tough budgets, the school district must do all it can to encourage desegregation so that students have a reasonable opportunity to be educated in a classroom resembling the world in which they live. And yet, only a handful of schools are voluntarily desegregated in numbers that truly reflect the community.
One of them is Southside Fundamental. The plan is to close it and move the program to the much larger Madeira Beach Middle. Taking the Southside fundamental program out of St. Petersburg's Midtown area and moving it miles away to Madeira Beach will effectively close it off to many poor African-American families, who will have no practical way to get there.
There are sound reasons to close the Southside building, which is old. But board members should be clear about the likely result. Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School is in a modern building adjacent to Midtown, and it is adding to its enrollment by more than 200 next year. But 600 or so Southside seats still would leave Midtown for Madeira Beach — and the greater Midtown area would still lose scores of spots in high-achieving fundamental middle school programs.
After decades in which their neighborhoods bore the brunt of busing for desegregation, those students deserve a little more consideration from the School Board.