Pinellas Prepares for School Closings
Budget woes bring consolidations and rezoning
By Bill Lopez
Children and parents lined up outside the Pinellas County School Administration building in Largo urge school board members to keep their schools open in spite of budgets reductions.
LARGO -- Reduced revenues and projected declines in student populations have affected country-operated public schools leading school board members to consider closing at least six elementary schools and consolidating four others.
The Pinellas School Board met Tuesday and passed a motion for a first reading to close Clearview, Gulf Beaches, Kings Highway, North Ward, Palm Harbor and Rio Vista Elementary schools.
The motion also calls for consolidating Southside Fundamental with Madeira Beach Middle School and Coachman Fundamental with Kennedy Middle School.
The meeting drew a large audience that overflowed from the 250-seat boardroom to adjacent rooms where parents listened to audio of the proceedings. The meeting began at 5 p.m. and lasted to 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.
In the open remarks portion of the meeting no less that 30 people spoke, most of who implored the board to find a way to retain the local school suggesting more funding from the state and reductions in other budget areas.
Budget reductions are not a new phenomena in Pinellas County schools. Cumulatively since 2006, $48.3 million have been trimmed from the county budget that currently exceeds $800 million. Board member Carole Cook pointed out that historically the state provided 60% of school funding principally from sales tax revenue but that currently only 49% of school funding comes from the state with 51% coming from the county.
While the economy continues to slide downward, the board anticipates more budget reductions in the future. At the same time, projections indicate a decline of kindergarten through 12 grade enrollments through the year 2013. In 2005, enrollments were 111,483 declining to 104,717 in 2008. In 2013 the board indicates 95,000 will be enrolled, a reduction for approximately 16,000 over eight years. Birthrates, attrition and foreclosures are considered the main contributing factors according to school officials.
Current operation of schools comes not only with budget restraints but also certain mandates including the No Child Left Behind legislation, the Class Size Amendment, Response Intervention and the overriding requirements to provide quality education to every student.
Per capita state and local government expenditures for all education in Florida rakes the state 49th nationally and 41st in funding of K-12 schools. Even considering Florida's older population profile, the K-12 funding level receives and "F" in the Quality Counts 2008 assessment of U.S. Education by Education Week magazine. In Pinellas County, high school graduation rates have improved from 67% to 74.4% and are about level with the statewide average.
In addition to closing and consolidations, the board and school administrators have reduced hiring, dipped into reserves, delayed construction and have changed school schedules in their effort to reduce costs.
Changing the school boundary map to accommodate the closing is a daunting task. Jim Madden, Asst. Superintendent of School Assessments who is charged with that responsibility said 18,000 elementary students live in the areas zoned for change. He said that while some will travel further many other students would actually be closer to their newly designed school because of the new rezoning. "Our hope is that there will be no hardships," he said. He did not know that disposition of the vacated school properties.
A second reading for the board's Student Assignment Plan to consider middle and elementary zone revisions comes January 13. Finalization of the rezoning is expected at the February 10 school board meeting.
These meetings are held at the Pinellas Country School board administration building at 401 4th Street SW in Largo. Contact Bill Lopez at email@example.com.
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