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    School Board quizzed on choice plan

    St. Petersburg leaders and Largo's mayor learn about the new student assignment plan.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000

    LARGO -- St. Petersburg is home to most of the Pinellas School District's African-American students -- and city leaders long have worried how the city will fare under the district's so-called "choice plan."

    Mayor David Fischer and five City Council members attended a meeting Tuesday with Pinellas School Board members, who wanted feedback on the new student assignment proposal. Board members had invited government leaders from every city in Pinellas, but only six representatives from St. Petersburg and Largo Mayor Bob Jackson, a former school principal, showed up.

    Rather than giving specific responses to the proposal's details, city leaders asked questions: How will choice affect magnet and fundamental programs? What guidelines will schools have to follow when they develop specialized programs to attract students? How much will the plan cost?

    And can the district guarantee that schools won't become segregated again? From now until 2007, while ratios are still in place, yes. But after that, no, said Superintendent Howard Hinesley.

    "I like the idea of kids of diverse backgrounds going to school together," said City Council member Jay Lasita.

    The new student assignment plan is part of a negotiated settlement between the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end a 1964 court case that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation. U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday recently approved the settlement.

    The settlement sets a framework to replace traditional school zoning with a system that lets parents choose their children's schools. Most of the details are up to the School Board, which will vote on the proposalOct. 24.

    The proposed system, which wouldn't begin until fall 2003, calls for the district to be divided into attendance areas. Students would apply to attend their favorite schools in their area, and a computer would process the applications.

    African-American student enrollment would be capped in each school at 42 percent until 2007, when the ratios can disappear. Under the proposal, certain students would get preference (but no guarantee) to attend their first-choice school -- such as if they live nearby or if an older sibling attends the school.

    City Council members said they want assurances that the district will provide special help to schools that have large populations of struggling students and schools that aren't often chosen.

    City Council members Kathleen Ford and Bea Griswold worried that, despite a school building program in south Pinellas, some schools will remain overcrowded, with no hope of getting rid of portable classrooms. As part of the proposal, Hinesley said, the School Board will define how many students can fit into a school's permanent classrooms.

    Over time, the district will limit the number of students at each school to meet that enrollment cap.

    "There's a strong, strong feeling in St. Petersburg that the main issue is an assurance of a quality education," Griswold said. "How are you going to guarantee quality when you have excessive capacity?"

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