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The white, suburban specter of choice


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

The Pinellas School Board is living in terror of the county's white people, especially those in the northern half. In the board's nightmares, the headlines read:


Angry Subdivisioned Whites

Hurl Tennis Rackets, Loafers

At School Board Offices

By the end of my visit to a School Board session the other day, I, too, had come to fear white people. I sneaked out to my car, worried that a passing cardigan mob might mistake me for a board member -- or even worse, confuse the "Howard" thing and mistake me for Superintendent Howard Hinesley.

But it is no wonder that the School Board is worried.

The board is changing the way that it assigns its 110,000 kids to schools. Few things rile parents more than hearing that school bureaucrats are going to play 52-card pickup yet again with their child's future.

True, the School Board is supposed to be doing something. That was the deal that let Pinellas get out of its 29-year-old court order to desegregate. The board agreed to move toward a system of "choice," in which parents request their kid's school assignment.

Choice! Everybody has always said they want it. But the School Board made this deal in a three-way dance with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a federal judge. Now a lot of parents are feeling ambushed and afraid.

They are learning there actually would be more buses, with crazy new routes -- even transfers. They are worried that their kids will be yanked out of their current school. So the reaction so far is overwhelmingly negative.

Hinesley says that most kids will get their first OR SECOND school choices. But there can be an awfully big difference between first and second.

And from 2003 to 2007, there still are racial ratios. That means busing. Here are Hinesley's own words:

Although every attempt will be made to honor the school choice requests made by families, some students may be assigned to schools in order to comply with the ratio requirement of the court.

Some. May.

This is why the School Board is scared of springing this on suburban parents. (Families toward the south county are more used to this, especially black families. Their kids get used as bus fodder all the time.)

"How are we ever going to explain this?" Linda Lerner fretted. "I am just really concerned," Susan Latvala said. "We've got to be careful with our language," Nancy Bostock agreed.

Feeling the heat, Hinesley is giving the board (and himself) an easy way out.

Are you ready?

His idea is to proceed with choice -- but to exempt everybody who asks.

That is correct. The parents of every student enrolled when this begins in 2003 could ask to be guaranteed a seat in their current school, and the middle and high schools they would attend down the road. This is called "extended grandfathering."

Abracadabra! Problem solved. The first crop of kids wouldn't be affected until ... hmm, about six years, 10 months from now -- maybe your kid, if you conceive tonight. Future parents are covered. Current parents get to opt out. The School Board gets political cover.

Except ...

Except, what does a plan accomplish if everybody is exempt from it? The NAACP Legal Defense Fund promises to fight extended grandfathering, which benefits white kids more than black kids. The whole thing could even end up back in federal court.

The irony here is that some kind of choice plan might work reasonably well. Might. But nobody trusts choice, not even the School Board -- which is why next Tuesday it will vote on "extended grandfathering." That is some plan, if the only way to pass it is to promise that nobody has to follow it.

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