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Charter schools stall deal on busing

Unexpectedly, the U.S. judge overseeing desegregation signals concern about policies on the privately operated schools.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday says he won't release Pinellas schools from three decades of federal oversight until he is satisfied that charter schools won't threaten a proposed settlement in the county's desegregation case.

In an eight-page ruling issued Wednesday, Merryday said he needs more concrete information about how the School Board will handle charter applications before he is confident the number, size and location won't jeopardize the settlement.

The judge reminded board members that he needs to trust that they will keep their promises, and he needs "further assistance" to evaluate whether they will.

"This was a surprise," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley who, like other officials, had had time only to skim the order. "I didn't expect this."

If the lawyers and School Board members are able to satisfy Merryday's concerns quickly, this delay will have little practical effect for Pinellas parents. Hinesley said the district's plans for an ambitious new student assignment system to replace court-ordered busing in 2003 will move forward regardless of Wednesday's order.

But the delay will put pending charter school applications on hold.

District officials had expected to hear from the judge soon, but they thought he would approve the settlement that took a year to negotiate. Instead, lawyers found themselves wondering Wednesday exactly how to satisfy the judge and how long it will be before Pinellas schools are free to operate on their own.

"The thoroughness of Judge Merryday that we have come to know and expect tells us we did not do as good of a job as he would like," said Enrique Escarraz, lead local attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "I feel fairly confident that we should be able to work that part out if we worked everything else out. Though, one never knows."

No one involved in the Pinellas case ever expected the issue of charter schools to loom so large.

In December, the School Board approved an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing for desegregation that began in 1971. The settlement said charter schools could be in the district's future, as long as the Legal Defense Fund had an opportunity to object and the schools would agree to comply with the settlement.

Then the district got a record five applications for charter schools, which are operated by private groups but receive public funds and so are considered public schools. One of the applications was for an all-black charter school; another was for a 750-student middle school in the southern part of St. Petersburg.

Hinesley recommended that both be denied. He said the all-black Marcus Garvey Academy would violate the current court order and the proposed settlement, both of which require race ratios in schools. He said the Bay Village Center for Education was so large that it could impair the district's ability to meet the ratios that would stay in place through 2007.

School Board members did deny the Marcus Garvey application, but decided to move forward with the Bay Village school. Four of seven board members said they did not believe Hinesley's analysis that the school would hamper their ability to abide by the settlement.

Meanwhile, the judge gave preliminary approval to the settlement and, in February, held a fairness hearing, usually the last step before the settlement is approved. During that hearing, he said he worried that charter schools might throw a wrench into the settlement.

To answer Merryday's concerns, Bowen sent him tapes of School Board meetings, old agendas with charter items and a set of neutral principles that the board said would guide its charter decisions in the future.

The board adopted two sets of principles: one for current applicants and one more stringent set for future applicants, saving Bay Village's application. The tougher rules would not allow charter schools to "substantially" impact the district's desegregation or construction plans.

But Merryday made clear in his order Wednesday that he believes board members have an obligation to the Legal Defense Fund and the public to honor the deal they signed on Dec. 17. There should be only one set of rules governing charter school applications, he said.

"The proposed agreement is not a mere policy, a statement of mercurial aspiration or an informed speculation about future conduct," Merryday wrote. "The agreement is an enforceable obligation to which the School Board in good faith is bound irretrievably during the term of its duration."

Merryday suggests that the district find some way to control the size of charter schools through the end of the settlement in 2007 and include the newly created District Monitoring and Advisory Committee in the application review process.

No one is sure what to do now.

Merryday has given the School Board 20 days to provide information or schedule a hearing, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will have 10 days after that to respond. With spring break one week away, School Board attorney John Bowen already has asked the judge's clerk if the board can have more time.

Bowen said he will analyze the order and provide the board with some options. One option would be that the two sides could go back into mediation: private meetings that don't include board members.

"We'll look at it very carefully and decide what needs to be done to comply," Bowen said.

School Board member Linda Lerner wants the board to meet with the Legal Defense Fund to work out the details. She said she continues to think that the judge is not really concerned about the impact of charter schools, but just wants more detailed information included in the settlement.

"I think this is something that is easily taken care of," Lerner said. "In my opinion, this could be taken care of in an hour."

But School Board member Lee Benjamin, who voted against the Bay Village application, believes the judge is truly worried about the impact of charter schools on the entire district's ability to meet race ratios.

"There's no question in my mind the judge had very strong concerns about it," Benjamin said. "He wants to know what's going to happen with charter schools."

No one doubted Wednesday that the district and the Legal Defense Fund can work out this issue so the settlement will be accepted. By delaying a ruling, though, the judge has made it nearly impossible for the Bay Village school to open for the next school year.

Bay Village founders are negotiating their charter and hoped to win final board approval in a month or so. But the board has agreed not to make any more charter decisions until the judge has addressed the issue, and that is at least a month away.

St. Petersburg City Council chairman Larry Williams, one of the founders, said he thinks this is just another attempt by the district administration to stop the school from opening.

"This is just another John Bowen trick," Williams said. "Now he has convinced the judge to do something. All of this is directed to the Bay Village charter school."


-- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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