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Panel to monitor racial balance

A new commission takes the reins in advising the School Board in its efforts to desegregate Pinellas public schools.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


Now that the federal judge has ordered Pinellas County's 36-year-old school desegregation case closed, the job of monitoring progress and keeping the case out of court falls to a little known group of 14 citizens.

Though the panel has been quietly meeting and collecting information since late last year, on Thursday the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee officially took its place in the center of the district's efforts to desegregate Pinellas public schools without court-ordered busing.

In interviews Friday, committee members talked of their sense of purpose, their view of their mission, and about obstacles they'll face as they take on issues that have confounded educators for decades.

"We've been asked to do a very odd thing: We have to monitor something without all the puzzle pieces being in place yet," said Marsha Carter, chair of the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee. "The school district has been declared unitary, while we still have a million things to decide.

"This is going to take persistence, tenacity and a lot of hard work."

The Monitoring and Advisory Committee replaces the longstanding Bi-Racial Advisory Committee, a group that monitored issues of race in the schools for 29 years, but faded in importance and influence over the years.

"The judge gave this group teeth," said Carter, who served previously on the Bi-Racial Committee. "That's what makes it different from the BRAC (Bi-Racial Advisory Committee). At BRAC, we'd get all upset and we'd go to a School Board meeting and they'd say "Thank you for coming.' I don't think that's going to happen with this group."

Several committee members expressed determination Friday that the group would avoid becoming a wishy-washy panel that offends no one and accomplishes little.

"We need to keep focused on the real issue; this is about justice," said committee member Jim Barrens. "If we can do that, we'll be alright. If not we become another amorphous, bureaucratic collection of do-gooders."

Though the DMAC is not modeled after any specific committee in another school district, it is a common tool used by courts. The idea is to create at least an interim group to monitor a school district's progress after a federal court gives up its direct monitoring function.

"There's no Procrustean mold, but this is not an unknown structure," said Norman Chachkin, legal director for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, who worked on the Pinellas case. "This provides a mechanism for a voice for the black community.

"This is intended to be an important sounding board," Chachkin said. "But it is an advisory committee. It cannot tell that School Board what to do."

Carter said she saw the group as essential to keep the school district on task.

"This is a big district," Carter said. "I don't necessarily trust their promises. Any group or organization is not very good at policing itself. I just don't believe that unless someone is watching them that these things in the agreement will happen."

In his order released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday laid out the mission of the DMAC. It is "to assess the school district's achievements in reducing or eliminating racial disparities in student achievement, discipline, and enrollment in . . . special classes and programs."

The committee is to send its recommendations to the School Board through Superintendent Howard Hinesley. Though the Board needs to approve their recommendations, the architects of the historic agreement fully expect the elected officials to give great weight to the DMAC members' suggestions.

"If they make a recommendation that is controversial and clearly people were split and the Board doesn't go with it, that's the way it goes," said Enrique Escarraz, the St. Petersburg attorney who has handled the desegregation case for the Legal Defense Fund since 1973. "But if they make logical recommendations that are ignored, that would be a problem. That's going to put some pressure on the board."

The DMAC members are evenly divided racially and include appointees chosen by the NAACP, the School Board, the Pinellas Administrators Association, the teachers union, the County Council of PTAS, and the School Advisory Committee Association.

Though most of the appointed committee members are not school district employees, members include school district insiders such as principal Joan Minnis of Garrison-Jones Elementary and Steve Iachini, the school district's director of research and accountability.

It also includes one teacher, Steve Bayless, who in his own words "ruffled some feathers" by calling attention to leaky roofs, small classrooms, and other structural problems at Gibbs High School. Achievement Specialist Michelle Dennard, the vice president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, also is a member.

"I don't see our role as being antagonistic," Dennard said. "But this is not a stamp of approval committee."

Other members include David Archie, Mary Schoonover, St. Petersburg NAACP head Garnelle Jenkins, Pat Scarberry, Elithia Stanfield, Anthony Barner, Victor C. Rowley and Jeffery Bronson.

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