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Desegregation hearing explores consequences of charter schools

The judge deciding the district's desegregation case wants to ensure that the schools won't jeopardize the settlement.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000


TAMPA -- Like the Pinellas School District, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sounds like he is struggling with the issue of charter schools.

At a 90-minute hearing Wednesday, Merryday peppered School Board attorney John Bowen with questions about how charter schools get approved. Merryday is overseeing the school district's desegregation case and has expressed concern about whether charter schools could hamper the district's ability to uphold a proposed settlement.

He asked whether there is a way to control charters that want to expand their enrollment. He wanted to know whether the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing the plaintiffs, has ample opportunities to object to charter proposals.

Merryday quizzed Bowen about the School Board's decision last week to adopt two sets of principles governing charter decisions -- one for current applicants and one for those in the future. He wanted assurances that the School Board will honor the proposed settlement and that the two sets of rules don't signal a wavering from that goal.

"The issue was directed to the practical and logistical consequences of the charter schools," Merryday said. "It wasn't an accusation."

After raising those questions, though, Merryday sounded satisfied with the answers he got from Bowen and Enrique Escarraz, the Legal Defense Fund's lead local attorney. He asked both sides whether any more meetings or court filings were necessary.

Both said no, and Merryday ended the hearing. Lawyers on both sides hope that means the judge is ready to weigh the settlement's merits and make a decision in the 1964 case.

"I would like to have this matter handled expeditiously," Escarraz told Merryday.

"We're long past any opportunity to claim this litigation was handled expeditiously," Merryday responded.

The district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund spent a year negotiating an end to court-ordered busing for desegregation. The proposed settlement that Merryday is considering was approved by the School Board in December.

Last month, Merryday held a fairness hearing in the case to gauge public support for the settlement, which outlines a new student-assignment plan for the district to begin in fall 2003. Two south county charter applications came up during the hearing, prompting Merryday to request documents and videotapes showing how the School Board handles charter applications.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but get public funds, so they are considered public schools. The settlement allows charters but says they must comply with the agreement, which includes race ratios in schools through 2007.

The subject has gotten tangled with the desegregation case primarily because of an application for the Bay Village Center for Education, a traditional middle school for up to 750 students in southern Pinellas County.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley recommended that Bay Village's application be denied because he said it would hamper the district's ability to meet race ratios in schools. Ultimately, the School Board did not agree that Bay Village would have a negative impact and approved the charter application.

The board decided to use "neutral principles" to guide future boards in approving charter applications to keep them from hurting desegregation efforts. But board members said it was unfair to change the rules in midstream for Bay Village or other current applicants.

Merryday said he thought the board should have adopted one set of rules, saying that while the process is ongoing, charter applicants could adjust to the new guidelines. Bowen explained that the board was just trying to be fair to the current applicants.

"The board will honor what they have said to the court," Bowen said.

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