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Lawyer to board: You talk to judge

The Pinellas School Board will consider arranging a hearing with a federal judge.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


LARGO -- Amid the confusion and contention over charter schools, Pinellas School Board members will consider setting up a hearing so they can talk directly with the federal judge overseeing the district's desegregation case.

A week ago, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday said he would not accept a negotiated settlement and end the 30-year-old case until he is sure that charter schools won't prevent the district from complying with the settlement.

School Board attorney John Bowen, who has always spoken for the board in Merryday's courtroom, says it is time that board members take the stand and answer the judge's questions. Bowen is recommending that the board set up a hearing as soon as possible. The board will consider Bowen's advice at a workshop this morning. In December, the School Board approved a settlement with the Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing and replace it with a choice-based student assignment plan in 2003. Between 2003 and 2007, the district still will maintain race ratios in schools.

Charter schools emerged as an issue in the desegregation case since February when Merryday held a hearing about the proposed settlement. He heard about a proposal for a 750-student charter middle school in the southern part of St. Petersburg -- a school that Hinesley said was so large that it would be difficult for the district to meet court-ordered race ratios.

The School Board, in a 4-3 vote, went against Hinesley's recommendation and approved the application for the Bay Village Center for Education.

Merryday has asked dozens of questions about charters -- how many the district has, where they are located, what kind of course work they offer and how board members decide which applications to approve. He wants answers to those questions in writing, plus evidence that the board can and will keep its promise to abide by the settlement.

Bowen said it might be necessary to hold private mediation sessions with the Legal Defense Fund to negotiate answers to the judge's questions. Board members are not allowed to attend mediation sessions; they are represented by Bowen and Hinesley.

The judge's order -- and Bowen's suggestions for responding -- stoked debate Monday.

School Board member Linda Lerner said board members should sit down with Legal Defense Fund lawyers and hash out answers to Merryday's questions. She and board member Jane Gallucci oppose private mediation sessions.

Lerner, who supported Bay Village's application, has repeatedly said Bowen has overstated Merryday's concerns about charters, arguing that the judge really just wants more information.

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