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    Attorney advises tough line on special school permits

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 10, 2002

    Pinellas County School Board attorney John Bowen has advised board members that they should not reinstate 26 special attendance permits for district employees who want their kids to attend school near or where they work.

    That advice was the focus of a confidential memo Bowen sent to board members on Saturday. Saying he wanted to avoid a controversy, Superintendent Howard Hinesley released the memo Friday morning, one day after the St. Petersburg Times requested it.

    The memo centered on Lakewood and Campbell Park elementary schools, where the African-American student populations top the 42 percent allowed in a federal court order. When schools exceed those caps, the district must try to correct them.

    Typically, the district would try to solve ratio problems by "rezoning," which means picking a group of white students from other schools and assigning them to Campbell Park and Lakewood.

    The district didn't want to do that, predicting that as many as 80 percent wouldn't show up.

    So, the district turned down numerous special attendance permits. Fifty-five were approved, then rescinded when it appeared both schools would still exceed the ratios. Of those 55, 26 belonged to district employees.

    Those employees lobbied the School Board, begging for the permits to be reinstated. Board members talked about holding a special meeting to address the issue, and that led to Saturday's memo.

    Bowen wanted the memo kept private because he thinks NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Enrique Escarraz will file a complaint with the court if the ratios aren't met. Bowen wrote that he thinks Escarraz "is under a great deal of pressure to have the Court find us out of compliance."

    If Escarraz files a complaint, Bowen wrote, he would be in a better position to defend the board if it's obvious that the district did all it could to honor the court order. Reinstating some of the permits, Bowen wrote, would weaken that position.

    After Bowen's memo, Hinesley and board Chairman Lee Benjamin decided not to call a special meeting. Board member Jane Gallucci, who favored reinstating permits for employees, is pleased that the discussion is now in the open.

    "The board left those parents with the impression that we would be working with them, and that's not what happened," she said.

    It is still unclear how the situation will be resolved.

    Escarraz won't decide until next month, when an official student count is taken, whether he will file a complaint.

    Hinesley said officials are still verifying student addresses to make sure they are attending the right schools. Schools are recruiting students who favorably affect the ratios.

    As of the first day, Campbell Park's population was 38.8 percent black and Lakewood's was 46.1 percent black.

    Those numbers are likely to change by the official count. But if those schools are below the racial caps, Hinesley said, some of the permits might be reinstated.

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