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City chips in again for school program

Largo High and Largo Middle School will get $40,000 for their in-school suspension programs. But officials say this may be the last year for the contribution.

City commissioners agreed Tuesday to continue paying half the salaries of teachers working for in-school suspension programs at Largo High School and Largo Middle School.

But the approval came with waning enthusiasm, raising the question of whether this year would be Largo's last in the partnership.

Largo will pay $40,000 toward the On-Campus Intervention Programs at the schools. The city gave the same amount last year and $20,000 in 1998.

Commissioners said during a workshop they had intended Largo's annual contribution to be temporary when the partnership began. The deal was the city would pay for half the teachers' salary and Pinellas County Schools would pay the other half.

To commissioners' chagrin, that's still the deal today. They thought the school system would be paying the salaries by now.

"The city felt the School Board would pick it up," Commissioner Jean Halvorsen said.

Commissioner Pat Burke echoed the sentiment, saying she had hoped Largo eventually would be able to use its contribution in other ways, possibly to enhance youth outreach programs. The money comes from a federal grant, but it could used for other purposes.

On-Campus Intervention Programs are designed to tutor and counsel students who misbehave, rather than send them home for a few days. A teacher and a counselor run the programs. The program originated locally at Clearwater High School.

Some students still are sent home, such as those involved in fights. But students who goof off in class, for instance, are sent to OCIP.

In recent years, 11 schools have instituted the in-school suspension programs, according to Commissioner Pat Gerard, who also works with Family Resources, a non-profit agency and a partner in the OCIP programs. In most cases, schools have combined the school system's extra funding with money from their regular school budgets to pay the teachers' salaries.

Largo High and Largo Middle School, however, have not had to do that because of the city's contributions. Largo is among few cities to contribute toward the project. "And I highly praise the city for that," said Largo High principal Barbara Thornton.

In 1999, Tarpon Springs followed Largo's lead, setting aside $36,000 to help finance the program at Tarpon Springs High School.

Thornton reasoned that the city should help pay because OCIP programs benefit the community by keeping wayward youth off the street. "I see this as a community problem," she said.

Largo Police Department officials have backed the program, pointing to figures showing OCIP has been increasingly effective in keeping kids off the street.

The number of Largo High students issued out-of-school suspensions dropped from 390 during the 1998-1999 school year to 317 last year.

The program was first implemented at Largo Middle School in 1999-2000. That school year, out-of-school suspensions dropped to 281. The year before, there were 842 out-of-school suspensions, a city memo says.

Commissioner Harriet Crozier encouraged officials to lobby the School Board more vigorously to pay for the program. They'll start soon. Possibly by next week, commissioners will pass a resolution stating their support for OCIP programs and calling for the School Board to contribute enough money to pay for the teachers' salaries.