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Diversity referendum debated

The push for single-member districts to help elect a black School Board member gets a hearing.

By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2002

The push for single-member districts to help elect a black School Board member gets a hearing.

LARGO -- Supporters of single-member districts touted them as a way to get an African-American elected to the Pinellas School Board and move leaders closer to the people they represent.

Opponents said the single-member districts could fragment the school system and pit board members against one another.

Representatives from both sides of the proposed referendum made their pitches Wednesday in a forum at the Gus A. Stavros Institute.

County Commissioner Susan Latvala and state Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, pointed to County Commissioner Ken Welch as an example of how single-member districts work.

Welch ran for the School Board countywide and lost. He later ran for the County Commission from a single-member district and won.

"The Pinellas County Commission is a shining example of how it can work and should work," Latvala said.

But other officials maintained that voter approval of the single-member districts could prove divisive.

Scott Rose, former superintendent of Pinellas schools, said single-member districts could cost extra money as board members request offices and secretaries, pitting board members against one other in a battle for limited resources.

"I have never found a year where we could do everything that everyone wanted," Rose said.

And former state Sen. Jeanne Malchon disagreed with Latvala and Peterman about their comparison of the school district to the County Commission. Commissioners, she said, represent different interests or concerns.

"There is nothing about (the school system) that is different from district to district to district," Malchon said.

If passed, the referendum would create four single-member districts and three at-large districts. In the single-member districts, board members would be elected only by the residents living in that district. In the at-large races, the board members would be elected by all Pinellas County voters, and the representative could live anywhere in the county.

Under the referendum, voters would still cast their votes for the majority of the School Board members: one single-member representative in the voter's district, and three at-large members.

Currently, all seven School Board members are elected by voters countywide. Five of the members must live in specified districts, while the other two may live anywhere in the county.

The current system has drawn criticism because no African-American ever has been elected to the School Board. Moses Stith was appointed in 1977, and Janice Starling was appointed in July. Both ran for office and lost.

If passed, the referendum would be phased in, beginning in 2004.

The forum will be broadcast on Channel 14 at 5 p.m. Friday, and at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

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