CLEARWATER - After weeks of querulous debate, the Pinellas School Board on Wednesday voted to close a historic school and for the first time, ordered crosstown busing for white high school students. Changing school zones is an annual rite in the county, one made necessary by overcrowding and a federal desegregation order considered one of the toughest in the nation.
The changes for next year move fewer than 2,000 students, far less than in past years. But the controversy was intense.
For the first time since Pinellas' schools were ordered desegregated in 1971, the district will bus white students to Lakewood High School, whose zone in no way borders their neighborhood.
And, by a 4-3 margin, in the School Board office, the Board voted to close the 75-year-old North Ward Elementary, the oldest school in St. Petersburg and one of the oldest in the county. Only South Ward Elementary in Clearwater has been operating longer.
By closing North Ward, the board managed to keep more than 1,000 pupils in St. Petersburg's Lynch Elementary School from attending school on split sessions. They'll use North Ward as an annex.
But a similar number of pupils in the Palm Harbor-Dunedin area weren't that lucky.
Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin is expected to open mid-year, and until it does, pupils will share the San Jose Elementary building, also in Dunedin.
For years, the School Board has wrestled with problems of racial balance at Lakewood High, Pinellas' southernmost high school at 1400 54th Ave. S. The 1971 federal court order that governs Pinellas' desegregation allows no school to have more than 30 percent black students and sets a minimum number of black students each school must maintain.
Most desegregation orders, including the one governing Hillsborough County, are such that some districts have some predominantly white and some predominantly black schools.
Lakewood has been over the 30 percent limit for black students for several years. The school sits in an integrated area, but to its north is a large, heavily black area. To its west are the zones for two other high schools, and Tampa Bay is to the east.
To extend Lakewood's school zone contiguously, as has been board policy in past years, the district has moved the boundary up a narrow strip along Tampa Bay.
But the plan approved Wednesday jumps almost 70 blocks and designates an overwhelmingly white area near the base of the Gandy bridge as a satellite zone for Lakewood.
Next year, about 120 white students in ninth- and 10th-grade who would have attended Northeast High will move to Lakewood. About an equal number of black students will be moved from Lakewood to Northeast, Dixie Hollins and St. Petersburg high schools.
The solution was opposed by two groups of parents. Those who live in the Gandy area said it was unfair that other white neighborhoods closer to Lakewood were skipped over.
One group from the Lakewood area, calling themselves the Southside Neighborhood Coalition, said the moves will destroy the integrated nature of the Lakewood area. They said they plan to hire an attorney and to try to become a party to the lawsuit that forced the desegregation order in 1971.
Members of a Lakewood High parent committee, however, applauded the fact that the school will at last be in compliance with the court order.
Even among School Board members, there was dissent. Member John Espey proposed that the zone be kept contiguous, taking students from the Old Northeast and Snell Isle areas of St. Petersburg to Lakewood.
He could get support for the idea only from board member Lucile Casey.
The final vote on the proposal was 6-1, with Espey voting no. North Ward
Equally controversial was the decision to close North Ward Elementary-St. Petersburg at Fourth Street and 11th Avenue N. Newly completed construction made room for the 250 North Ward pupils at nearby Woodlawn Elementary, and the state has said for years that North Ward was an inferior building that should be closed.
Parents had mounted a strong campaign to keep the small, naturally integrated neighborhood school open. But the parents split recently.
Some said they wanted the school closed unless the board committed to keeping it open at least five years.
Others said Wednesday that they wanted it to stay open, regardless of the commitment.
Once the board decided to close North Ward (with board members Espey, Corinne Freeman and Robert Moore voting to keep it open), the way was cleared for Lynch Elementary in northeast St. Petersburg to stay off split sessions.
A new elementary school, Sawgrass Lake, is scheduled to open in 1991 to relieve the severe overcrowding at Lynch, which has about 1,000 students in space designed for about 700. Superintendent Scott Rose had proposed that the student body be split, with the Lynch pupils going to school from 7:20 a.m. to 12:20 p.m., and the Sawgrass Lake pupils going from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Instead, the board said it will put nine Lynch classes at the North Ward building next year until Sawgrass Lake is built.