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Mediator seeks a word with School Board members

At least one is reluctant to discuss the mediator's charter school proposal, as it relates to a desegregation order, before a board workshop Tuesday.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2000


LARGO -- School Board members weren't ready this week to approve a proposal that would control charter schools as the district seeks an end to court-ordered busing for desegregation.

Now a court-appointed mediator wants to have a word with them.

The mediator, Tampa lawyer Peter Grilli, helped district officials and attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund come up with a proposed agreement detailing how to limit the growth of charters through 2007.

The proposal is in response to questions from U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, who said he won't approve a settlement in the desegregation case until he is sure charters won't impair the settlement's success.

School Board members were not invited to those private negotiating sessions, but were given a copy of the proposal and asked to approve it Tuesday. They had a lot of questions and set a workshop for Tuesday to talk more about it.

Grilli faxed a letter to School Board attorney John Bowen on Wednesday afternoon, requesting to meet privately and individually with the seven board members Saturday.

"Under the circumstances, I think it would be best for me to have a mediation caucus (that is, a meeting subject to the mediation rules) with individual School Board members as soon as possible," Grilli wrote.

Bowen said he could not comment on Grilli's request because mediation is a confidential process. He would not even say whether board members were willing to participate in the private sessions, a practice that some board members have criticized in the past.

Merryday appointed Grilli in January 1999 to assist lawyers from the district and the Legal Defense Fund to negotiate a settlement to the 30-year-old case. Board members were not included in the negotiations but met privately with Grilli, at his request, before the settlement was officially presented to them for approval in December.

School Board member Linda Lerner said Wednesday that she thinks Grilli's most recent request is premature. She said she needs to have her questions answered at Tuesday's workshop before she is ready to analyze the proposal. She asked Bowen whether she could politely decline Grilli's invitation.

In a memo to board members, Bowen's answer was essentially no.

"I am sorry for the inconvenience, however, we have no choice in the matter," Bowen wrote. "The mediator has the authority to request such individual caucuses." If most board members agree they are not ready to talk to Grilli, Lerner asked Bowen to convey that sentiment to the mediator. But if she must, Lerner said she will meet with Grilli on Saturday.

"I have to follow his legal advice, and I will," Lerner said.

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