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Oct. 24 is decision day on pupil assignments

By then the School Board hopes to have had varied input on the plan replacing busing.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


LARGO -- The Pinellas School Board will make a final decision Oct. 24 on a sweeping new student assignment plan.

The board voted Tuesday to select that date so district officials will have enough time to get feedback from parents, teachers, administrators, school advisory councils and government leaders. A series of public meetings and school presentations are being scheduled.

"We're going to listen very carefully," said board chairman Max Gessner.

In December, the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund agreed to end a 1964 lawsuit that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation. The settlement calls for the district to implement a new student assignment system beginning in fall 2003.

Proposed details of the new system were unveiled Monday. The district will be divided into attendance areas, students will choose schools in their area and selections will be made through a computer process. The idea is to shift from traditional zoning to allowing parents more choice about where their children attend school.

School Board members were given two options for dividing the district. One would create three areas for elementary and middle schools and one area, the whole county, for high schools. The other option would create four areas for elementary and middle school and two areas for high school.

The proposal would give preference to students who live close to their first-choice school and to siblings who want to attend school together. Between 2003 and 2007, black student enrollment at each school will be capped at 42 percent, so district officials also will put weight on maintaining diversity.

The proposal includes a provision that would allow all students enrolled in the 2002-2003 school year to complete elementary, middle and high school within their current attendance zones. That means only students new to the district in fall 2003 would have to participate in the new choice system -- and that already has met with disapproval by the Legal Defense Fund.

As district officials begin debating these details, they still are trying to persuade a federal judge to approve the settlement. U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday has said he won't grant final approval until he is certain that charter schools won't hamper the settlement's success.

Merryday will hold a hearing Friday morning to talk with board members about charter schools. Board members will tell the judge that they have directed their attorney to negotiate privately with Defense Fund lawyers to address the judge's concerns.

One of the charter school applications that raised questions for the judge is the Marcus Garvey Academy, a school for 45 African-American students proposed by the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

The School Board denied the application, but school proponents appealed to the state Board of Education. The appeal was scheduled for Tuesday, but state leaders agreed to a 60-day delay.

In the meantime, a lawyer for the Marcus Garvey Academy has filed a motion to intervene in the desegregation case. The motion was filed on behalf of two black parents who argue that "their children are being denied equal treatment and protection under the laws" because the settlement does not permit all-black or predominantly black public schools.

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