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Higher fees may keep schools open

Class fee increases may be the salvation of the county's four community schools now targeted for closing, Pinellas County School Superintendent Howard Hinesley said Thursday. "It looks good" for the community schools at Lakewood, Northeast, Seminole and Tarpon Springs high schools, which were to be closed, Hinesley said. "The numbers look favorable."

That should be welcome news for the approximately 900 people who recently signed a petition protesting the closings and for many others who have called and written School Board members to protest the proposal.

Community schools offer basic adult education, enhancement courses such as music and cooking, and space for classes offered by outside groups and for meetings of groups such as Crime Watch. About 22,000 people annually enroll in the schools, and an additional 74,000 use the facilities for other functions, said Sherry Oliver, director of adult and community education.

A few months ago, Hinesley proposed closing four of eight community schools to save about $500,000 amid a severe budget crunch. The closings would have left open only the Clearwater, Countryside and Dixie community schools, as well as one at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center.

The public outcry was immediate. School Board members directed Hinesley to find a way to keep the schools open.

On June 26, he will bring the fee increases before the board. Recent state legislation would allow classes that now cost 27 cents an hour to cost 31 cents to 77 cents an hour, and classes that cost $1 an hour could go to $1.50, Oliver said.

However, courses would continue to be free for people taking general education courses or seeking a high school diploma.

"I would approve of a fee increase," said School Board Chairman Barbara Crockett, who added that the hubbub has had a positive side effect: "I think maybe the community will have a little more appreciation for what we have to offer."

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