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Charter school limits proposed

The Pinellas superintendent wants to maintain the district's race ratios by limiting charter schools' admissions.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


LARGO -- Florida legislators created charter schools in 1996 so private groups, using public money, could open innovative schools free of some of the restrictions other public schools must follow.

Now, in an effort to end a 30-year-old court case, Superintendent Howard Hinesley is proposing that the Pinellas school district take more control over charter schools by playing a role in their admission process and limiting how many students can attend.

Pinellas school leaders are seeking an end to court-ordered busing for desegregation. U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, who is overseeing Pinellas' case, has said he won't approve a settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund until he is sure that charter schools won't hamper its success.

Beginning in fall 2003, the settlement says students no longer will be assigned to schools based solely on their home address. The county will be divided into zones -- Hinesley and the Defense Fund support three for elementary and middle and one for high school -- and students would choose schools in their zone. Race ratios would remain through 2007.

Merryday is concerned that charter schools could impair the district's shift to a new student assignment plan.

Merryday wants assurance that, even with charters, the district will be able to maintain race ratios and balance enrollment in schools. After two negotiation sessions with a private mediator last week, Hinesley and attorneys for the School Board and Legal Defense Fund came up with a 14-page solution.

"I think it answers the judge," Hinesley said.

Charter school founders would have to conduct their student admission process through the district, using the district's computers. Charters would have to maintain race ratios like other charter schools. But they could not admit any student whose departure from his zoned school would upset the ratio at that school.

Officials developed a formula for limiting the number of students who would be allowed to attend charters.

Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignment, said the formula allows the district to maintain a stable environment, good use of every school and required race ratios. It is an unbiased way, she said, to maintain control over charters, as Merryday suggested.

Countywide, she estimates that more than 15,000 elementary-age students could attend charters. At the high school level, about 1,400 could. The situation is more grim for middle school pupils; only about 850 would be able to attend a charter school.

Right now, the district has only three charters. The Athenian Academy, for up to 240 elementary students, is not yet open. Academie Da Vinci has 60 elementary-age students. Whole Child at UPARC serves about 20 preschoolers.

"We don't want anything to happen that would create an instability," Mueller said. "We need to get people confident that this (the new assignment plan) is going to work."

Another key proposal is that charter schools could not force changes to the district's five-year construction plan, which includes several new schools in southern Pinellas and expanded Azalea and Meadowlawn middle schools. Charters cannot be allowed to grow, change location or alter curriculum without approval from the School Board.

The School Board will hold a workshop this morning at 10:30 to discuss the proposal. Board members are scheduled for a vote at the board's 1 p.m. meeting at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

If the board approves the proposal, it will be sent to Merryday's office on Wednesday.

The proposal would not affect the district's three existing charters. But it could seriously alter or even kill the Bay Village Center for Education, a middle school being proposed for St. Petersburg.

Bay Village founders, including St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Larry Williams, say they need to enroll 750 students to be financially feasible. But under Mueller's calculations, the southern part of the county can accommodate only a middle school charter with 483 students.

Williams said he had not read the proposed agreement but continues to think top district officials are trying to find a way to kill Bay Village.

"They still found a way, it appears to me, to allow us to have a charter school and set us up for failure," he said.

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