School Board candidates grapple with a new reality
As schools move from court-ordered busing, what will replace it?
By THOMAS TOBIN and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published August 19, 2006
With 16 candidates competing for four seats on the School Board, Pinellas voters have enormous leeway this year. They could put four new faces on the seven-member panel or choose some combination of new and old.
Whatever the mix, the district's newly reconstituted leadership team won't have much time to get up to speed. After a Nov. 21 swearing-in and a light December meeting schedule, the 2007 calendar will grab them hard by the lapels.
Come January, the board will be staring at an issue as vexing and emotional as any this school system has ever faced. After a four-year transition away from decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation, the time has come to decide on a system for the next generation.
The rigid race ratios that have kept some Pinellas schools from becoming all black or predominantly black will expire at the end of this school year, part of a federal court settlement in 2000 between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The pact was born of the reality that, as old discriminatory practices have faded, many courts no longer see the need to ensure educational equity by forcing black and white kids into the same schools.
The Pinellas choice plan will remain as a mechanism to assign students to schools, but it will likely be altered significantly. More important, major questions loom about how committed the district will be to maintaining racial balance in schools and what methods, if any, it will use to maintain diversity.
How voters choose on Sept. 5 will have a decided impact on how Pinellas resolves these questions.
Some candidates say diversity should be the foremost consideration in forming a new plan; some put more emphasis on other factors. Some have thought through the details of a new plan; others say their ideas are still evolving.
Several point out that a choice task force appointed by the current school board is still working on recommendations. One candidate, Sheldon Schwartz, notes that Pinellas' solution could well be shaped by how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on systems in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that take race into account when placing students. The court will consider those cases this fall.
School choice and the future of desegregation is a public policy monster every bit as daunting as Florida's insurance crisis, but with more history and baggage. And its implications reach far outside the schoolhouse, affecting the county's economic development efforts, its real estate market and the tenor of civic life.
The issue centers around two imperatives that seem mutually exclusive: Many Pinellas parents, black and white, want the district to make it easier for their kids to go to school close to home. But if the goal is to integrate schools in a county where black and white families generally live apart, significant numbers of students would need to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
Some candidates propose breaking the county into smaller attendance areas, which would match more families with schools closer to home. Others call for more magnet and fundamental schools as a way to bring more white families into black neighborhoods.
But the new board faces a public that has proven somewhat resistant to the choice plan's call for families to mix it up.
"Nonblack" applications were down this year at some magnet schools in St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods. Black families, meanwhile, have been fleeing midcounty schools in large numbers.
Application trends indicate that two south Pinellas high schools - Gibbs and Lakewood - would have been more than 70 percent black this year if the current system had not forced more balance.
In a recent Times poll, more than 60 percent of Pinellas parents surveyed said they preferred a school in their neighborhood. Fewer than 30 percent said their first choice would be a racially integrated school, and only 41 percent said they were "very likely" to send a child to a magnet school in a black neighborhood.
"People aspire to these worthy goals," said Don Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and a leader on the choice task force. "But you can infer from the numbers that as a practical matter, they aren't following them in their own family situations."
What are your ideas for changing the district's system of assigning students to schools when the choice plan's race ratios expire next year?
* Nancy Bostock*: Seeks a balance that promotes racial diversity and serves parents who want schools closer to home. Wants district to offer a better set of choice school options. Urges smaller attendance areas so families are guaranteed a school near home if they don't attend a choice school.
* Chris Hardman: Says the district should "try to maintain racially diverse schools." Sees magnet and fundamental schools as key tools in the effort. Says a hub system for school buses would be more efficient.
* Mary Russell: Says district should work with others to bring more diversity to area housing. Concerned the board has not discussed the future of choice in more detail. Says more data is needed on what kinds of programs families would choose. Proposes that families already in public schools get priority choices.
* Marti Folwell: Is waiting to formulate proposals until choice task force completes its work. Says every school should be an excellent school. Says parents who prefer schools close to home should have high priority, ideally without sacrificing diversity.
* Sean O'Flannery: Says students should be able to choose only schools near their homes. Sees no problem with some schools resegregating, "as long as the money is being spent equally and you have a quality school and a quality principal with community involvement."
* Peggy O'Shea: Would allow more families to get into schools close to home, yet keep some seats open for farther-away students who want choice. Would encourage diversity with more magnets, academies and vocational-technical programs. Supports more money going to schools left with struggling students.
* Anne K. Scofield: Proposes forming clusters of schools. Students would spend mornings at their main school getting the basics. After lunch, buses would deliver them to special programs at other schools in the cluster. Says plan would improve access to all district programs and achieve diversity.
* Lewis Williams: Calls himself a strong advocate for diversity. Doesn't want to abandon it, even though many black and white parents say they want the ability to choose schools close to home. Says one answer is beefing up magnets and other special programs, especially in elementary schools.
(Seminole, Pinellas Park, north St. Petersburg, Tierra Verde, gulf beaches from Redington Shores south)
* Jack Killingsworth: Would limit the choice of schools to smaller geographical areas. Would like the plan to promote diversity, but says it's more important to cut busing costs and have parents closer to schools so they can be more involved.
* Linda Lerner*: Says she would consider increasing the number of attendance areas and strengthen the ability of families to secure a school closer to home. Would seek "an in-depth analysis of how other districts are reducing busing costs while maintaining choice systems."
* Carl Neumann: Says shorter bus routes and the ability of families to be closer to schools and more involved in education are more important to residents than racial diversity. Would focus on magnet schools as a primary tool to achieve diversity.
(St. Petersburg south of 54th Avenue, Kenneth City, Gulfport, South Pasadena)
* Mary L. T. Brown*: Says district should work hard to preserve racial balance because schools should mirror the diverse work force. Supports assigning students to schools based on family income. This method, tried elsewhere, could satisfy courts that frown on using race to assign students.
* Jennifer S. Crockett: Would shrink attendance areas and expand magnet and fundamental programs as a tool to maintain diversity. Would assign students to schools based on family income rather than race. Says the proportion of kids in poverty at each school should mirror district average.
* Minetha L. Morris: Urges a softer approach to achieving racial diversity. Says no child should be refused a school close to home based on ethnic origin. Supports more magnet and fundamental schools, rethinking the school bus system and looking at alternative means of transportation.
* Sheldon A. Schwartz: Says he would work aggressively to uphold the district's court agreement to keep diverse schools as a goal beyond 2007. Says more detailed proposals would come after the task force finishes and the U.S. Supreme Court rules soon on race-based student assignment plans.
* Ray Tampa: Would first assure public that all schools offer a quality education, and work to improve diversity on school staffs. Would increase the number of fundamental and magnet schools whenever possible, and propose hiring a marketing firm to help schools publicize their programs.
* Denotes sitting school board member.