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Board agrees on schools' sizes

Control of charter schools' growth was the final issue for Judge Steven Merryday in the drive to end court-ordered busing.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


LARGO -- Faced with mounting pressure to resolve a months-long debate over charter school regulation, Pinellas County School Board members on Tuesday unanimously approved an agreement to control the schools' sizes.

With the vote, board members settled the last remaining issue in the district's push to end court-ordered busing for desegregation.

The signed agreement will be delivered to U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, who is overseeing the NAACP Defense Fund's lawsuit against the district, just in time for a Thursday court hearing.

"I really believe we have an outstanding solution," said board member Tom Todd. "It's been two years in the making through carefully crafted negotiations."

In December, the Legal Defense Fund and the School Board agreed to settle a 1964 court case that led to forced busing and race ratios in schools.

Two months later, an issue came up that neither side had contemplated: charter schools. With the district poised to change how it assigns students to schools in 2003, Merryday wanted assurances that charters won't pose a problem.

Merryday said he wouldn't approve the settlement until he was satisfied that charters wouldn't impair the district's ability to uphold it. He told the district and the Legal Defense Fund to come up with a way to control the size, location and number of charter schools for the next seven years.

Easier said than done.

For months, the sides have privately negotiated and brought several drafts to the School Board. Each time, board members disliked how their hands were being tied.

At a court hearing earlier this month, Merryday made it clear that the time for drawn-out debate had long since passed. He promptly scheduled another hearing for this week with the implication that the board should complete its work on charter schools before that.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but receive public money so are considered public schools. Through the settlement's end in 2007, they will have to undergo scrutiny by the Legal Defense Fund and maintain race ratios like other public schools.

The charter school agreement will limit the number of students who can attend charters, which has raised the ire of founders of two proposed schools.

The Marcus Garvey Academy's proposal for an all-black, 45-pupil charter school was denied because all-black schools won't be allowed. Founders have appealed the decision to the state Board of Education and filed a motion to intervene in the desegregation case. The judge has not set a hearing on that motion.

The Bay Village Center for Education middle school proposal, already with preliminary approval, is now in limbo. Founders, including St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Larry Williams, want to eventually serve 750 students; the plan to limit charters would allow Bay Village to take only 538 students.

Bay Village founders have requested that a state mediator help work out the dispute. A lawyer for the group, Kent Whittemore, appealed to the board to allow Bay Village to grow to 750 students if the final 212 students had not been enrolled in Pinellas schools the year before. His appeal was unsuccessful.

With the final charter agreement done, board members hope Merryday will approve the entire settlement soon. If that happens, district officials can move confidently forward with the details of the agreement, including the new assignment plan.

But there could be another wrinkle.

Merryday said at a recent court hearing that he might want to hold another public hearing about the settlement since it has changed.

District officials don't want another hearing. They are responsible for notifying all 110,000 students if a hearing is set, and they say they couldn't do that until school starts in August.

If a hearing would be set for the fall, district officials say, that's more months of waiting to find out whether Merryday will approve the settlement.

A hearing is just what Marcus Garvey Academy proponents, including members of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, want. Guy Burns, an attorney for the group, said proponents are organizing to protest an agreement that allows all-white charters but not all-black charters.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that the court understands these issues," Burns said. "There's no equal protection for black children."

In other news:

Members of the Uhuru Movement protested the district's decision not offer another contract to Veronica Williams to teach math at Gibbs High School. Williams, an outspoken critic of the district, sat silent as her supporters chanted "Defend Veronica Williams, fire Hinesley."

Her supporters demanded that she be rehired. Board members said they do not have the authority to hire a teacher but encouraged Williams to explore her appeal options.

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