The new Pinellas School Board already is showing some resolve in dealing head-on, quickly and thoughtfully, with declining revenues and student enrollments. The results may be painful for some families, but difficult times bring clarity to issues that already should have been addressed by the school district.
School closings. The plan discussed by the board on Tuesday would shutter five elementaries to save an estimated $6.9-million. Given the realities of less money and fewer students, some schools will have to close. The backlash from parents who do not want to move their children already is occurring, but the district no longer can afford to keep older schools or particularly smaller ones open when there are so many vacant seats in others. School Board members will have to maintain the resolve they demonstrated this week to deal directly with an issue they have avoided in the past, even if the list of school closings winds up being adjusted a bit.
Busing. The board signaled it will think seriously about reversing last year's decision to provide buses to students who stayed in their current schools rather than shift to their new zone schools. It would be difficult and unpopular to go back on this agreement. But if it comes down to a choice between doing whatever is possible to help teachers in the classroom or offering grandfathered busing, teachers and students and the classroom must come first. The school district has long spent too much money on inefficient bus routes, and that cannot continue. Remember, the district is anticipating a $40-million budget shortfall for next year, and that number is likely to grow.
Fundamental schools. A plan to close Southside and Coachman fundamental middle schools and move the programs to Madeira Beach and Kennedy middle schools makes sense. Students in the programs can simply transfer to the new schools, where the buildings are in better shape, and students already at those schools can stay if they will abide by the back-to-basics rules of the fundamental programs.
This plan opens up more seats in sought-after programs at little or no cost. And there is the successful precedent of some years ago, when the former Childs Park Fundamental was shut down and its decrepit building torn down, and the program was moved to Pasadena Elementary. St. Petersburg's Midtown area will still be served by a fundamental middle school, Thurgood Marshall, which has room to expand its enrollment. Though it's not near enough to Southside to be an easy option for students who currently walk, it is much closer than Madeira Beach, which could prove too distant a drive.
Gifted programs. Starting gifted programs at Thurgood Marshall, Dunedin and Morgan Fitzgerald middle schools meets a demand and will improve educational opportunities without hurting the budget.
For years, Pinellas School Board members spent too much time arguing and getting sidetracked. With their backs against the wall, a new superintendent and a couple of new faces on the board, the new board members already are preparing to take concrete steps to reduce costs and improve educational opportunities. They really don't have any choice. It will take a lot more creative thinking to deal with the financial and educational challenges, but this is a promising start.