Henderson: Pinellas phys ed cuts exercise in tough choices
I wouldn’t want to be a public school administrator these days. Legislators believe they can do the job better by mandating more tests, often with fewer resources. Parents blame them for anything that goes wrong. Money is tight and the kids just keep coming. So I sympathize with the dilemma facing Pinellas County school leaders as they try to reduce their budget by at least $16 million. The money has to come from some place and no one is ever happy to learn they are expendable. I also think it’s wrong to target physical education in the county’s elementary schools, but I recognize they’re in a tough spot.State law says schools have to provide 150 minutes of phys ed a week for students, which has been mostly spread over the five regular school days. The Pinellas plan would give schools the option to reduce that to three days, but at the same number of minutes. Leaders say that will save money, give teachers more time for classroom instruction and make for more manageable scheduling. They say students will get the same amount of weekly physical education. Maybe. But on the days students can’t blow off a little steam, they’ll be bouncing off walls. A school day lasts 6 ½ hours, and I think a break in the routine for a little phys ed would help keep students sharper, especially as the day winds on. And perhaps it’s just a coincidence (cough, cough) that the proposed budget cutbacks could eliminate 27 P.E. instructor and assistant positions. To be fair, they aren’t the only ones being targeted. Plans call for a net reduction of 40 teaching positions because the district is in a real fiscal bind. We all have to live within our means these days, and that also means the school. Other programs in Pinellas are targeted, too. Exceptional student programs might face consolidation (read: cutbacks). A behavioral intervention program could face big reductions. Stacked against those things, finding savings in gym class is the administrative equivalent of low-hanging fruit. You can legitimately wonder if 30 minutes a day under the label of physical education really has that much impact, especially when plans call for 50 minutes three times a week as a substitute. I think it does hurt, though. Childhood obesity is a real problem that won’t be wiped out by a half-hour of dodge ball a day, but some sort of daily exercise is a pretty good habit to start at a young age. Maybe the kids just power walk, or maybe they play a game. Maybe they learn that all games don’t have to involve a joystick and internet connection. Or maybe they get to close their books for a few minutes and recharge their batteries. Like I said, I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision on what’s acceptable to cut. I mean, way back in the day at Pleasant Street Elementary School, we didn’t call it P.E. We called it recess. It worked pretty well back then, but that was before politicians decided they needed to give test after test to make sure we were keeping up with students in China. When you look at it that way, who has time for play?