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Reins tighten on charter schools
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000
LARGO -- The School Board agreed Tuesday to more stringent criteria for future charter school applications -- but left alone a controversial middle school for St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point neighborhood.
In a 5-2 vote, the board agreed with Superintendent Howard Hinesley that, to be approved, future charter schools can't "substantially" impact the district's desegregation or construction plans. Hinesley wanted that same criterion to apply to three pending charter applications, including the Bay Village Center for Education.
But most board members said it wasn't fair to those three applicants -- who submitted their proposals in November -- to change the rules mid-stream. "To change the rules on charters that have put so much time in is not appropriate," said board member Linda Lerner. "The issue is really one of fairness."
For months, School Board members have wanted to analyze their approach to charter schools because of confusion and complaints about the process. The issue took on more urgency last month when the judge overseeing the district's desegregation case raised some questions.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday is considering whether to approve a negotiated settlement between the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end 29 years of court-ordered busing for desegregation.
At a Feb. 28 fairness hearing, Merryday wondered whether the variable of charters -- not knowing how many could open -- could impair the district's ability to abide by the settlement, which includes race ratios in schools through 2007.
On Monday, the judge sent a letter to School Board attorney John Bowen saying he needs assurances the district will make a good faith effort to fulfill its promises and that he wants a list of "neutral principles" that will govern the board's decision on charters.
He made it clear that how the board handles charters will have bearing on whether he accepts the settlement. He also suggested the board delay all charter decisions until he has time to approve the board's criteria; the board agreed to do that with two applications it was scheduled to vote on Tuesday.
For hours Tuesday, School Board members debated the issue, complaining they aren't included in private court-ordered mediation sessions.
In other news, the board agreed with an administrative law judge that Palm Harbor University High School teacher Timothy Falls should get a written reprimand -- but not a 10-day suspension without pay -- for discussing pipe bombs in class the day after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Hinesley had recommended the suspension but Falls appealed. The judge said the district overreacted, but that Falls should get a letter in his file for using poor judgment.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.