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Shut schools jolt schedules again today

The unofficial record for angry e-mails sent to Pinellas schools superintendent Howard Hinesley is 800.

That mark could fall today with schools again closed in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne. Worse yet, a third consecutive day of canceled classes is possible Wednesday if power isn't restored to major intersections and more than two dozen schools.

Thousands of frustrated families scrambled to set up child care and re-orchestrate schedules that hinge on a six-hour school day. Others worried that making up the six days already lost to hurricanes this year could cut into their holiday plans or summer vacations.

One make-up day has been set for Friday, Oct. 15, formerly a teacher training day. The rest are up in the air.

Keenly aware of parental concerns, Hinesley said the decision to close schools today became clear late Monday, "much as I realize my e-mails will be heavy tomorrow."

He said 28 schools and two administration buildings remained without power Monday and Progress Energy could not guarantee it would be restored by this morning.

And the county reported that more than 22 intersections were damaged or without power. Some involved major roads, and the district's transportation chief, Terry Palmer, insisted it would be dangerous to send school buses out under those conditions.

About 45,000 of the district's 112,000 students ride school buses.

Like many families, Alicia Bright worked with other parents Monday to deal with child care. Because her business was without power, she was able to watch friends' children for part of the day. In return, her two children went to hastily organized sleepovers that will spill into today, which allows her to return to work today.

"I kind of farmed them out," the East Lake mother said. "It's everybody working together. You do what you have to do."

With two children who ride the bus to school, Bright said she agreed the intersections were dangerous and she had no problem with the district's decision to close school.

Pinellas was one of 35 Florida counties to cancel school today. The list includes Hillsborough and Pasco counties, which also cited dangerous roads and power outages.

Asked whether schools would open Wednesday, Hinesley said he would not know until today. Much will depend on the ability of Progress Energy to restore power, he said. "That's the thing that scares me because we said, "Can you give us an estimate?' And they said no."

Why not just open the other 120 public schools in Pinellas?

Hinesley said that option was briefly considered but shot down. The dangerous condition of many intersections was the primary reason, he said, though other factors played a role.

One was the fact that power was out at 70 lift stations that move sewage to treatment plants. The school district had no idea whether that problem would affect schools, Hinesley said. He said opening schools when the county was calling on people to conserve water would have exacerbated the problem.

The partial operation of the school bus system also would have been a problem, Hinesley said.

Under their contract, the district's 700 drivers must be paid for six hours when they show up for work, he said. With so many schools out, however, many drivers would have worked only a portion of the day with the district forced to shoulder the cost of the whole shift. Hinesley said the expense was too great.

Another factor would have been the complexity of adjusting routes at the last minute in a system where most buses ferry students to multiple schools.

So what was the controversy that sparked the record 800 e-mails to Hinesley?

It happened, he said, when a teacher used a book with an offensive reference to American Indian women.

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