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Charter school questions are sticking point

Pinellas school officials say the charters' effect on racial ratios is unknowable, but the federal judge is demanding answers.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000


TAMPA -- All seven Pinellas School Board members on Friday took the witness stand, vowed to tell the truth and testified in general terms about charter schools.

But they were really talking about just one.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, who is concerned about the effect charter schools could have on the racial makeup of Pinellas schools, said the proposed Bay Village Center for Education, a 750-student middle school in St. Petersburg, should not be the focus of the debate. But it was clear in the courtroom that the Bay Village proposal has come to symbolize the divisive debate about whether charters will "adversely affect" the district's ability to meet race ratios through the settlement's end in 2007.

Earlier this month, Merryday said he will not accept a proposed settlement to release the district from 30 years of court supervision until the School Board has some means of controlling the number, size and location of charters. On Friday, Merryday made it clear it would be unacceptable for the district to accommodate charters by changing how many or how long students are bused.

"I didn't want to be confronted . . . with the prospect of the School Board's noncompliance," Merryday said. "I'd rather deal with it now than later."

The School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have agreed to a settlement that would end court-ordered busing for desegregation. The settlement allows charter schools, privately operated schools that receive public money, as long as they comply with the settlement and the Legal Defense Fund has a chance to object.

Bay Village is one reason Merryday's interest and concern about charters has piqued. The Legal Defense Fund objected to the school. Superintendent Howard Hinesley recommended the School Board vote no because the school's creation, and attraction for white families, might force the district to pull students from as far north as Seminole or Largo to get enough white kids to fill public middle schools in south Pinellas.

The School Board voted 4-3 to accept Bay Village's application. Several board members who supported Bay Village testified it is impossible to predict whether the rezoning prediction would come true. Even if it does, they said, they wouldn't consider that a problem.

And that's Merryday's concern.

"Right now, there's so many variables," board member Jane Gallucci testified. "I agree with the judge."

"There's always someone who does," Merryday said.

As the district moves into a new philosophy about student assignment that involves more parental choice, it is impossible to predict how many charters might open and what impact they could have.

In his order earlier this month, Merryday requested that the School Board provide some evidence showing how it will uphold the settlement. The School Board already has directed Hinesley and School Board attorney John Bowen to negotiate with the Legal Defense Fund some written answers to Merryday's questions.

Now they have Merryday's new directive to consider: How can they write a policy, to include in the settlement, that would prevent charters from "adversely impacting" the district's desegregation plans when no one is sure how to define "adverse" and no one can predict the future?

Merryday offered just two examples based on how he defines "adverse" -- charter schools that draw so many students that they leave the district with half empty new schools or rezoning students to achieve racial balance. Lawyers on both sides said they will seek the help of a court-appointed mediator to work through the issue.

Board chairman Max Gessner suggested a moratorium on all charter schools in south Pinellas County through the end of the settlement. He also suggested that Bay Village could be built somewhere else in Pinellas, rather than in racially mixed St. Petersburg.

School Board member Tom Todd testified that Bay Village should be required to shrink if the district would have to shuffle students to meet race ratios. The School Board, which has not yet granted Bay Village final approval, could include that in the charter.

St. Petersburg City Council chairman Larry Williams, one of the school's founders, said that would be unacceptable. He said Bay Village must have 250 pupils per grade to be financially viable.

Bowen said the private mediation sessions will begin soon. Merryday asked for an update on the negotiations in the next few weeks.

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