On June 15, the Pinellas County School Board voted to change school start times, a cost-saving action that included having 10 elementary schools open at 7:35 a.m. and 28 open at 9:20 a.m. - an hour later or earlier than their original 8:35 a.m. opening. When Theresa L. Casey, 49, the Palm Harbor mother of a soon-to-be third-grader at Cypress Woods Elementary, heard her daughter would have to be at school an hour earlier, she used the Web to connect with other concerned parents and voice opposition. They created a Facebook page and designed an online poll of parents on the issue.
On June 29, the board reversed its decision. Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello recently talked with Casey about her experience.
Why were you concerned about the change in start times?
My husband has a great job, but his hours are very varied. He sometimes doesn't come in until as late as 8 o'clock or sometimes 9 p.m. The earlier start time was going to affect our time together as a family. But that wasn't really what got me - because we could adjust ... the issue for me was that ... there's this long history of announcing the bell times after school is out and changing it just about annually. And pretty much that was the setting off of, "This is crazy! Get it together. Give the people in the community more than a year or two with a set schedule."
Did you feel left out?
It was a feeling of, yeah, left out. The School Board had put up a really awesome online survey that said, "Hey, we're going to have to make some budget cuts, that's no secret. Here are some things that we're considering cutting, please give us your input."... And bell times were not on that list of items. ... So it caught everyone off guard. The principals didn't know. The PTAs didn't know.
What was your initial response to the change?
I went on Facebook, after spending days away from the computer, and I was bombed. I was bombed with people, just two or three people from our school, who said there's a Facebook page that says to join up and try to figure out what to do. Very, very loosely defined ... and so I started becoming a little activist on this Facebook page. And then someone was smart enough to put a survey together. The Saturday afternoon before the June 29 meeting ... I asked for some help in trying to e-mail all of these affected school administrations, the principals, the vice principals, PTAs the SACs ... And I probably e-mailed 400 e-mails from Saturday afternoon until 2 o'clock in the morning and said these are the tools that are out there: the Facebook page, the survey, the video of the meeting. Send a note to the School Board ... and let's see if we can't do something. I have no way of knowing ... if those were successful. I got e-mails back from administrators who said, "Thank you for trying. We don't know that that's going to make a difference." Mostly I heard, "Forget it, you can't do it, good luck."
Did you think what you were doing was futile?
Yes. I absolutely did. My point in trying to raise it - I really did not believe that they could turn the wheels back because there just wasn't enough time. ... I just wanted to try to force the idea. My closing remarks to the board were, "Commission a study, get a task force together, something, so that you can understand for the following years because this isn't sane to keep doing it year after year."
What do you think was the key in getting the School Board to shift its position?
I think ... it was the amount of exposure to how quickly the decision was made without enough supporting data.
What do you mean?
Well, in my opinion, when watching the video of the vote, the board members repeatedly stated that they asked for additional data. ...They didn't understand what they had received. They understood the impact to the community - they said that over and over again. And yet they voted to change the bell times. Within less than 13 days - and I'm not sure they got any supporting data - they rescinded their vote. The only difference I can think of was the outcry from the community.
What surprised you most about this process?
I'm a former IT executive, so I've had budget issues, I've run companies that are three- and four- and 500-people big. I've been involved in making complex decisions. But I was surprised by how overwhelmed I was, and continue to be, at the size of the budget and the depth of where the money comes from and the legal bounds as to how they spend it. I don't think the public appreciates what a tough job the board has.
What advice do you have for other parents who might be frustrated by the actions of elected officials?
The standard old line, "The individual cannot make a difference?" Well, this was a group of less than a dozen people who did not know each other, who somehow was able to convince the community to join up in their call to action and overturn a decision. So, the individual can make a difference.
Anything else you'd like to share?
I would hope that those that were involved that made the calls, that sent the e-mails don't let this be their last call to action. Next year the board is facing a $50 million cut. I encourage them to ask the questions and stay involved as best they can. We all have busy lives. But read the newspaper. Read the articles. Ask the board members questions if you have a personal concern. Just ask.
Contact Rebecca Catalanello at (727) 893-8707 or email@example.com.