Panel: no race ratios at schools

A task force's ideas, if okayed, would alter how students are assigned.

Published February 16, 2007

LARGO - A task force is proposing that Pinellas public schools end the long-standing practice of balancing enrollment by race, and also give students a better chance of attending a school close to home.

The group reached agreement and largely ended its work Thursday night after 18 months of meetings, public hearings and a recent survey of more than 7,700 households with children in Pinellas schools.

The survey made clear that a large majority of Pinellas families, regardless of their ethnic background, consider the racial makeup of a school and its staff a secondary matter. Large majorities also said they wanted their children in schools near their neighborhoods, particularly from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Members of the task force considered the survey as they spent the last two weeks talking through what they would recommend to the School Board. Their job, which began in August 2005, was to help the board find ways to improve the school choice plan and maintain diversity even as the district makes the transition away from 35 years of busing.

The group's suggestions, if adopted by the board, would significantly change the way students are assigned to schools.

"I thought the process had a lot of integrity and resulted in some important things being said and listened to," said task force member Adrien Helm, who sat on the group's diversity committee. "Ultimately, the School Board is going to have to make some difficult choices. ... It's not going to be easy for them."

According to the task force, Pinellas no longer should balance school enrollments by categorizing students as "black" or "non-black." Instead, the group said, the district should create diversity by ensuring that students with learning disabilities, limited English skills, poor test scores and those from low-income families are not too heavily concentrated in any school.

The proposal is based on research that indicates children in those groups generally do better when they attend schools where the majority of students are middle class.

Using a student's social class is one way some districts have tried to maintain diverse schools as the nation's courts have grown increasingly cool to racial balancing.

Pinellas is in the final year of a court-ordered plan that uses racial balancing. The plan says no school's enrollment may be more than 42 percent black. The task force had the option of reviving some sort of race-based system but chose not to.

One factor that discouraged members from doing so was a ruling expected soon by the U.S. Supreme Court on how far school districts can go when using race in student assignment. The court appears poised to end the use of race or limit its use greatly.

As a way to get Pinellas students in schools closer to their homes, the task force is recommending that the School Board increase the number of attendance areas in the district. Attendance areas are zones that students are confined to when selecting a school.

The district has four attendance areas for elementary schools; the task force suggests as many as seven. There are three areas for middle school; the task force suggests four. It also suggests two high school attendance areas, in contrast to the current system, which allows students to apply for any high school in the county.

Among the group's other proposals:

- Expand the district's popular magnet programs.

- Increase the number of fundamental schools, the "back to basics" programs that, like magnets, have long waiting lists.

- Establish stronger "feeder" patterns across the county to make it easier for families to predict where their children will attend elementary, middle and high school.

The group said its goal was a plan that helps students achieve, promotes diversity, keeps students close to home, makes the system more predictable for families and reduces the soaring cost of busing.

In a final meeting Thursday night, the task force agreed on a number of proposals. A subcommittee will write its final report to the School Board, which will be left with the task of implementing something.

The details could include the politically perilous exercise of drawing attendance area boundaries, a task that is sure to cut some families off from a school they want to attend.

The board also will have to sort out how much it can afford. Some of the proposals, such as expanding magnet programs, will cost money in a district where budget cuts and dire talk about finances have become an annual ritual.