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Doing the school shuffle

It's one man's job to hear parents plead their cases for transfers. He obliges many, but not all.

After talking to hundreds of parents who wanted their children assigned to different schools, Bill Person heard something that made him laugh in amazement.

A woman wanted her child moved from one school to another one. Instead of making her request through Person or another school district employee, she went to a higher authority: U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.

"It would probably be much more expedient" for her to go directly to the school district, Person said with a smirk.

There was nothing the Tampa congressman could do for the woman, and possibly nothing the school district could do for her. She wanted her child moved into an overcrowded school _ a request that rarely is granted.

During the past week, hundreds of parents made requests for their children to be moved to a school other than the one where the district assigned them.

Unlike the woman who contacted Davis, most people went directly to Person, who's responsible for assigning students to schools in Hillsborough.

Most parents got what they wanted. Person estimates that of about 15,000 requests for special assignments each year, 85 percent were granted their first or second choices.

"I would say (most) of the parents we deal with are satisfied," he said.

Even so, he had security guards on hand at all the sessions in case anyone became irate.

Some people were frustrated after the sessions at seven high schools in the county. But most people were satisfied when they left.

Michelle Hines works next door to Forest Hills Elementary, so she was pleased when Person allowed her daughter to switch from Shaw to Forest Hills.

"It'll be a lot easier," Hines said.

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Hilda Pineda, who just moved to the area from California, wanted her daughter Claudia moved from Miles Elementary to Lake Magdalene Elementary.

But Person told Pineda what he has told many parents throughout the week: Lake Magdalene is on the critically overcrowded list, so he couldn't allow Claudia to go there.

"Most of what I've been doing is saying "no' to schools that are critically overcrowded," Person said. Throughout the week, he could be heard saying, "I'm sorry ma'am, Adams is a capped school. We can't let anyone else in," and "Sir, we'll try to get him into a different school, but Schwarzkopf is critically overcrowded."

In Pineda's case, Person quickly thought of an alternative: Forest Hills Elementary, which is south of Miles.

Pineda shrugged and said okay. Within a couple of minutes, the entire transaction was complete and Person moved on to the next person.

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Most parents had compelling reasons for wanting their children moved to different schools. Some needed their children to stay at a grandparent's house after school; some had children who had been assigned to different elementary schools; others had children who wanted to take classes that are only offered at a few schools.

And many people told Person they simply don't like whatever school their child has been assigned to. They don't like the principal, or their child had a bad teacher, or other students are mean to their child.

Often, Person can't grant their requests. For instance, he had to tell Debbie Krutsinger that her son couldn't switch to Greco Middle School. Krutsinger didn't tell a reporter which school her son currently attends, but she said she was unhappy with the school and was disappointed when her request was denied.

Sometimes, Person said, people probably create a reason why their children need to switch schools _ even if the real reason is unhappiness with the assigned school. They might say the child needs to change because after-school care is closer to another school or the child wants to take an advanced-placement class that is only offered at the other school.

"It's possible for them to custom-design a reason," he said. He tries to weed out those people, but he can't always identify them.

But most people have valid reasons for wanting the switch. Karen Jones lives and works in Progress Village, but she wanted her son Alonzo to attend Lake Magdalene Elementary. Jones' mother takes care of Alonzo after school, and she lives near Lake Magdalene. Alonzo's cousin already goes to the school, so Person allowed the transfer, even though Lake Magdalene is on the critically overcrowded list.

Lori and Gus Rising wanted their son and daughter moved from Williams to Adams Middle School so they could continue going to a nearby Boys and Girls Club. But Adams is critically overcrowded, so Person assigned them to Oak Grove Middle. Like many other parents, they had to settle for their second choice.

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When Martha Reifert moved here from Toledo this summer, she was told that her daughter would attend Gaither High and her son would go to Walker Middle. She had registered her daughter, Jennifer, for classes at Gaither and assumed that everything was in place.

"She even had her senior pictures taken," Reifert said.

Then Reifert got a surprise: Her family lives in the Sickles zone. She was shocked.

"We live 2 miles from Gaither and approximately 10 miles from Sickles," she said.

On Monday, Reifert and her daughter talked to Person. They told him about their ordeal and said that Jennifer wants to take Spanish 5, a class that isn't offered at Sickles.

A few minutes later, they left with smiles on their faces. "It worked out," Jennifer Reifert said.

"After umpteen headaches," her mother added.

Parents who want to request new schools for their children should go to the Velasco Student Services Center, 1202 Palm Ave., in Ybor City. School district employees will be there from 8 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.