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Board: Use prints to track kids

St. Petersburg Times | March 10 2004

LARGO - Assured that student privacy would be protected, the Pinellas School Board Tuesday approved a $2.26-million system to use childrens' fingerprints to track their movements on and off school buses.

A division of Laidlaw International, Inc., an Illinois-based transit giant that owns Greyhound, was awarded the contract to outfit the school district's 750 buses with electronic devices that will identify individual students by their fingerprints beginning next fall.

The purpose of the program is to ensure students get on the right bus and get off at the right stop.

When the idea first was raised last month, some parents and civil liberties groups said the proposal had a Big Brother quality that might threaten student privacy.

No one at Tuesday's meeting complained about privacy issues, but board members Nancy Bostock and Mary Russell voiced concern about how the issue appeared on the agenda. It was listed on the consent agenda with many other smaller purchases.

"It really represents much more than a simple purchase," Bostock said. "This is a significant policy change."

But district transportation director Terry Palmer said privacy concerns for students are unfounded because the system does "not fingerprint them in a classic sense."

It identifies enough points on a fingerprint to create a binary code unique to each student, he said. It does not create a visual image of a print and the district will not have the ability to produce such an image or reproduce the binary code, he said.

"Even if somebody were to ask the district for it, we could not give it to them, even if we wanted to," Palmer said.

The information also will be protected by multiple passwords. Palmer said the district already handles a large amount of private information on students and could handle the new information "with absolutely no problem."

Families who still feel uncomfortable with the system can elect not to have their children participate, but district officials believe the vast majority will take part.

The system, which uses Global Positioning System technology to track the buses, will prevent students from getting on the wrong buses and allow the district to track where they are on the way to and from school.

It also will help the district monitor drivers and investigate claims of speeding and unsafe driving.

The district will pay for the system using savings from construction and renovation projects, some of them dating several years back. Officials also said keeping better track of buses and bus drivers will allow the district to streamline routes and trim minutes off bus drivers' days. All told, district officials estimate that between $500,000 and $900,000 can be saved each year in efficiencies.

In other business, the school board decided to revisit a property tax referendum that it had recently decided to postpone.

After hearing from frustrated teachers, School Board members informally agreed to reconsider scheduling a ballot proposal for raising property taxes by about $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value in November's general election.

The much-debated ballot measure would raise $50-million a year for four years, and board members have discussed the possibility of spending most of it to bring teacher salaries up to the national average.

Only a week ago, board members concluded that a November election would leave too little time to mount a proper public information campaign and talked about trying again in March.

The School Board agreed to schedule an emergency workshop after hearing from the Faculty Representative Council of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, though no date was set.
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