An elementary school rezoning plan designed to stabilize school populations across the county was unanimously approved Tuesday evening.
School leaders say the changes are intended to relieve crowding at some schools while taking advantage of room at others. The rezoning plan will affect more than 2,100 students at 27 elementary schools.
The 6-0 vote came after Pinellas County School Board heard from a dozen parents who voiced a variety of concerns. The public discussion was set for 7 p.m. to allow parents who work during the day to participate.
Some of the parents who spoke against the changes live north of Curlew Road in Palm Harbor, an area that has seen multiple zoning changes in the past few years.
"We feel like there is a target on our back," Eric Keaton and his wife, Maria, told the school board. Their son, a second grader at , will attend under the new zoning boundaries.
Tina Vornheder lives in the Country Woods subdivision, which is also north of Curlew Road. Her children are in first and third grade at "A"-rated Ozona Elementary, which is a mile and a half away from her home in Palm Harbor. Under the new zoning rules, her kids will attend "B"-rated San Jose Elementary in Dunedin, which is three and a half miles away from her home.
"They ride their bikes, they have friends, they have teachers that they like. They don't understand why now they have to take a bus to a school that's three and a half miles away," she told commissioners.
After the meeting ended, Vornheder vowed to continue to fight on her kids' behalf. "I'm going to apply for an exception, but there are only so many spaces. … It'll be up in the air until fall," she said.
Jack Redding has two daughters who attend in Clearwater.
"It seems like every time they turn around, you're talking about rezoning," he told school board members. "They say it's all about the students, but I'm not hearing that it's about the students, and I'm just not feeling the love from the school board, not feeling it."
Fewer parents spoke Tuesday evening than at the school board meeting in early November, when a preliminary vote was taken on the rezoning plan. Dee Burns, Director of School Assignments at Pinellas County Schools, says the district worked individually with many parents to solve their problems.
"We've spoken to several parents over the past few weeks," Burns said. "We've been communicating with parents since the first reading. All the parents we've talked to have been great."
Burns says it has been an especially challenging time for some parents, who are passionate about the issue.
"Parents don't want to leave the school that they love. Whether their zone is changing or they got there through a special assignment or open enrollment, most of the time they have a strong attachment to the school. They don't want to leave; they want to be able to stay," she said. "So it's about lots of separation anxiety and lots of love for the school and belief that that's the place where their child is going to be most successful. It's hard for them to think about anything else."
Burns says in addition to the new 2012-13 school boundaries, elementary students who are not currently attending their zoned school will be returned to their zoned school, unless they meet one of the following special circumstances:
- Fourth-grade students can stay at their current school for fifth grade.
- Students who were in kindergarden in 2008-09 and were assigned to their schools through open enrollment may stay at their current schools.
- Students in kindergarten through third grade who were assigned to a non-zoned school because of overcrowding may stay at their current school.
- Some third graders attending a non-zoned school because of special circumstances may stay at their current school; examples include the Exceptional Student and English as a Second Language programs, and medical circumstances.
Burns says other changes for the 2012-13 school year include:
- The Open Enrollment policy will end and will be replaced by a Special Assignment Request policy.
- If a family moves out of its current school zone, the child will be allowed to stay at the non-zoned school, but the child will have to go to the zoned school the following year.
"Hopefully, we're done rezoning, and if we can get people to follow the policies we should have a bit more stability and not have to come back for zoning for a while," Burns said.