Several opinion pieces have been written about the desirability of returning to neighborhood schools and the social, educational and fiscal benefits that would result from implementing such a plan. There has been little discussion, however, about how to implement such a plan with the least amount of disruption while maximizing the potential for success by gaining broad public support.
The State of Florida Constitution has mandated that all Florida counties maintain county-wide school systems, resulting in some with multibillion dollar budgets, armies of high paid administrators, and little progress academically based on national measures of education performance. This county-wide mandate was written into the Constitution when the population of Florida was much smaller, thus the number of students in each district was much smaller. The huge increase in the number of children in many districts has made the districts unwieldy and difficult to administer effectively. As an example, in 1990 Lee County Schools had 44,000 students versus over 80,000 today. This fact, combined with busing children from the same neighborhoods long distances to different schools, has resulted in destroying the cohesiveness of many communities and has impersonalized our education system. Accordingly, a viable plan to return to neighborhood schools should include empowering local communities to play a major role in all decisions regarding the education of their children. The only way to accomplish these goals, short of changing the State Constitution, which is highly unlikely, is an internal redistribution of the District, which would include the creation of five smaller, local community districts which would be contiguous with the five County Commission districts. Voters in each local district would elect a local board consisting of five non-salaried members, one each from five smaller single member districts to insure that all neighborhoods are represented. These five member community based local school boards would appoint a district based administrator of their choosing.
The county-wide school board would serve as a pass through for funding and set overall district policy in compliance with State mandates. This governance model would mirror that of the state in relation to the counties and would bring local school decision making back to the communities. It should include a mandate which I will detail in a future opinion article to reduce the size of the central bureaucracy so as not to increase the size and cost of administration county-wide. Local community school boards would decide how individual schools would create equal programs in all schools instead of the current magnet programs that limit services only to students lucky enough to secure seats in these schools. I strongly believe that all elementary and middle schools should have equal programs including offering art, music, gifted and ESE services. Under this plan, local communities would have input into all major decisions involving their schools. High Schools would continue under the current Choice program.
The community school district model will bring back neighborhood schools while enhancing community involvement. It will dramatically decrease the cost of the current $50 million transportation system which is not only much too costly, but also has failed to keep schools diverse or increase educational standards as evidenced by the fact that a large portion of our graduates are unable to read and comprehend basic technical information. The School Board needs your input, please contact them; our children and taxpayers deserve better.
Robert D. Chilmonik, of Cape Coral, is a former school board member