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School pact close, judge told

Facing a weary federal judge, lawyers working on the desegregation plan predict lingering issues will be resolved soon.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TAMPA -- Six months ago, the Pinellas School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund reached a historic agreement to settle a 30-year court case that has required busing for desegregation and race ratios in schools.

To this day, several issues remain unresolved. The settlement still has not been approved.

On Thursday, the federal judge overseeing the case made it clear that he is growing weary of waiting.

"I've become increasingly concerned with the passage of time," said U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday. "It has been some six months now since the agreement was arrived at. Then some six months later, there is no method for compliance. It rather causes me to inquire of myself: Why?"

Both the school district and the Legal Defense Fund had hoped Merryday would approve the settlement by spring. Both parties wanted to get to work on the details of the agreement, which calls for a new system of assigning students to schools and a pledge to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students.

Instead of lifting the court order in April, Merryday said he was not ready. He said he needed proof that charter schools would not impair the district's ability to comply with the settlement.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but receive public funds so are considered public schools. The district got a record five applications last fall, and Merryday wanted the district to find a way to control the size, growth and location of charters through the end of the settlement in 2007.

For two months, lawyers on both sides have met in private mediation sessions. They have brought several drafts to School Board members, who have not yet been satisfied. This week, board members asked for two more changes to be negotiated.

School Board attorney John Bowen assured Merryday that "we're extremely close if not there." He said he can't offer a guarantee but expects board members to approve a final draft at their June 27 meeting.

Enrique Escarraz, lead local attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, said he is optimistic that the final two issues will be resolved soon. Escarraz and Bowen shook their heads vigorously when Merryday asked if they had reached an impasse.

"Oh, no," Escarraz said.

"The board has been very deliberate about it," Bowen said, acknowledging the charter negotiations have taken "a long time."

"This is perhaps the biggest decision they will ever make."

Merryday agreed that board members have a responsibility to make careful, reasoned decisions. But court cases can be resolved two ways -- through settlements or trials -- and Merryday wanted to know which route the parties want to take.

"If there is to be no settlement, it will be necessary to revert back to where we were," Merryday said. "It's not possible to leave litigation in suspense. You need to provide me with some finality in this."

Merryday also wondered whether another public hearing will have to be scheduled before he can make a decision. A hearing was held in February, but the charter school portion has been added since then.

Bowen and Escarraz said they had not considered that. Both said they would have to research the issue, but guessed that such a hearing might be necessary.

Two School Board members, Nancy Bostock and Linda Lerner, attended Thursday's hearing. Afterward, Lerner said she remains confident that the charter negotiations are in the home stretch.

She also heard from Merryday that they have to be.

"We have our marching orders," Lerner said. "I can't think of any other issues that could come up."

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