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Bay Village charter school plan suffers another blow


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2000

LARGO -- The Bay Village Center for Education has written and rewritten its charter school application, trying to answer all of the questions Pinellas school officials have posed.

On Friday, the school's founders found out that their work may have been in vain.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley recommended that Bay Village's application be denied because the charter school wants to enroll 750 middle school students. Hinesley said that large a charter school could interfere with plans to expand several middle schools and a federal court order that requires race ratios at schools.

"We have to look at this beyond this charter," Hinesley said. "You can't deal with this in isolation."

The School Board will consider Hinesley's recommendation at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the district offices, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

Marcia McGhee, chairwoman of the Bay Village founding board, had this reaction: "Disappointed, but not surprised."

"We've put a lot of work into it," she said. "We've tried to keep an open mind."

All along, district officials have had problems with Bay Village's application.

Earlier this month, Hinesley recommended that the School Board deny Bay Village's charter application. He said the school was too large and resembled a fundamental school. Under an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, no new fundamental schools can be created before 2007.

Enrique Escarraz, the lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, objected on the same grounds. (He has not yet finished reviewing Bay Village's amended application.)

School Board members unanimously agreed to give Bay Village's founders two more weeks to address those concerns and meet with the district staff. Bay Village wants to open this fall in a vacant shopping center near Pinellas Point in St. Petersburg.

The school's founders, which include former teachers, community activists, City Council member Larry Williams and a child psychologist, have made numerous changes to please the school district. They agreed to enroll students from all over Pinellas County and omitted a preference for neighborhood children.

They have been firm that they are not opening a fundamental school, but a traditional one that emphasizes traditional teaching methods and values. Even so, founders agreed to remove several components of their program to assure district officials that their school is not fundamental in disguise.

For instance, students and parents won't have to sign contracts. And parents will be encouraged to volunteer and participate in the school, but a child won't be dismissed if his or her parent doesn't remain active.

Even with those changes, Hinesley said he still can't support the application as it is written. Not only could this school potentially jeopardize construction projects at Azalea, Meadowlawn and Dunedin middle schools, he said, but it could make it more difficult for the district to adhere to the federal court order.

Marlene Mueller, the district's director of pupil assignment, said her analysis shows that the school will pull hundreds of white students from other middle schools in south Pinellas County. At Azalea Middle School, for example, it could become difficult for the school to meet court-ordered limits on the number of black students, she said.

She predicted that if Bay Village enrolls 750 students, the district might need to pull white students from as far north as Largo or Seminole to meet those race requirements.

"If this were going to be developed in north county, I wouldn't be having so much heartburn over it," Mueller said. "For one thing, it's a growing area. Certainly, in terms of ratios, it wouldn't be a problem."

Hinesley did say -- and plans to tell the School Board the same thing -- that if Bay Village were willing to cut its size to 300 students, he would be amenable to finding a way to make the charter work.

Bay Village representatives say the district's grim predictions are nothing more than conjecture. They might be willing to consider a slightly smaller school, but think that a school with 300 students would not be financially feasible.

"We don't believe the School Board really knows what this would do to the ratios," McGhee said.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but receive public money and are considered public schools. It's up to the School Board to decide whether to accept or reject an application.

If the application is accepted, the district begins negotiating a charter. If the application is rejected, the applicant can appeal to the state Board of Education.

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