Pinellas schools superintendent speaks at forum

09/26/07 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke today at the Unitarian Universalists church of Clearwater’s Community Forum.

Wilcox addressed the topic "What’s Going on in our Schools," and said the district will be closing some schools at the same time it needs to build others.

Wilcox said Pinellas County Schools will be making major reorganizations and be reassigning students next year, but they have not made final decisions.

There is a serious achievement disparity in Pinellas schools between people of color and whites. For example, black and Latino 17 year olds read at the same level as white 13 year olds. But Wilcox said race plays a part, but poverty is also a major factor that needs to be addressed.

The Pinellas school district is the 23rd largest in the United States. There are more than 100,000 students, 9,000 classroom teachers and a budget of $1.5 billion.

Wilcox said that rather than paying teachers more to work in schools with low-income students, society should provide comprehensive resources to those communities.

One of the things that could really affect the performance of low-income students is the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs, according to Wilcox.

Although Wilcox thinks that teacher salaries should be higher, he told WMNF that their other working conditions need to be improved as well.

“Well, one of the things we’re doing for our classroom teachers today is we realize that just economic compensation isn’t all that they need.

"They need safe working environments. So we have tried to redo our expectations for civility on our campuses. That begins with strong dress codes and the enforcement of that dress code. It continues on with how kids interact with teachers. We have a zero-tolerance policy in terms of drugs and weapons on our campuses.

"We’re trying to do more with local campus intervention rather than using police and the judicial system. It’s a total package for our teachers trying to build quality.”

One of the attendees, Bud Zimmer is known in Pinellas County as Mr. Fundamental because he has been shepherding the fundamental movement for 30 years.

“A fundamental school is a public school, a full public school, but parents are required to be involved. And I mean the word ‘required’ because they sign a contract with the school. They have to attend PTA meetings once a month, they’ve got to sign the homework, they’ve got to make sure their child is dressed properly, … the girls can’t wear spaghetti straps and the boys can’t wear short shorts, so they have to have a different dress code. But otherwise it’s the same as a regular school except the parents are involved.”

A parent in the audience asked the superintendent why so many As are given to students in advanced classes, even when they’re not earned. She felt that it leads to students not being prepared for college. Wilcox said teachers have to pick their battles and sometimes give in to pressure from some parents.

WMNF asked Wilcox why the school board was reducing the millage rate when more teachers and classrooms are needed to meet the requirements of the class size amendment.

“Well, one of the reasons that we’re reducing the millage rates, particularly in terms of our capital dollars, is because we are respectful of the burden that has been placed on the taxpayers of this community. And we thought we should do our part, we needed to review our growth products, we needed to review our projections and in doing that we were able to reduce it slightly this year and we think we will be able to reduce it again for the next year.”

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