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Monitors of schools assess group's role

With several new members, the committee tracking desegregation efforts takes a hard look at what it can accomplish.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


The committee charged with monitoring Pinellas County schools' desegregation efforts is trying to regain focus after four members resigned and four left because their terms expired.

In recent weeks, four people -- including two who were intimately involved in the negotiations to end the district's 1964 desegregation case in federal court -- cited frustration, sadness and disappointment in the group's ineffectiveness as the reasons for their resignations.

They complained that the school district, specifically the superintendent and School Board attorney, is trying to control the 14-member group by limiting its power, scope and information -- a charge district officials vigorously deny.

One member complained that the lead local attorney for the plaintiffs, Enrique Escarraz, has vanished from discussions about plans to give parents greater voice in choosing their children's schools beginning in 2003. Escarraz says that is not true.

Amid the exasperation and personality conflicts emerges an important question: What is the group's role and how can it move forward to actually help student achievement? The group meets Saturday for a daylong retreat to try to find an answer.

"They need to make sure they have developed a deep understanding of what exactly their function is in terms of monitoring the district," said Jim Madden, who leads the district's desegregation efforts.

The District Monitoring and Advisory Committee has been in existence about two years and includes appointees from local NAACP chapters, the School Board, the Pinellas Administrators Association, the teachers' union, the County Council of PTAs and the School Advisory Council Association.

In his order releasing Pinellas from direct court supervision, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday said DMAC's role 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."

DMAC studies reports and makes recommendations to the School Board, which must listen to DMAC but does not have to accept all of its positions.

Early on, with an overwhelming task ahead, the group struggled.

Meetings that were supposed to take only two hours took four. Members bickered with each other. Members disagreed about how involved they should get in School Board debates. They disagreed about how to involve community residents in their work.

The group clashed with some district administrators. They vehemently opposed a provision in the choice plan called "extended grandfathering," which will allow some students to opt out of the new system and attend their currently zoned elementary, middle and high schools.

Some DMAC members said they should have been involved in a survey the district sent to parents to gather information to make decisions about the choice plan. They raised issues about DMAC's role in decisions about zoning and charter schools.

Through it all, the group remains hardly known. Parents and interested residents rarely visit the group's meetings, all held in Largo.

"Either as a result of fear, apathy, school system intervention, or some other unknown factors, DMAC has neglected its responsibility to engage the community, squandered its potential and abrogated its responsibility to the community as stated in the court order," wrote Jim Barrens, who resigned.

The other DMAC members who resigned are:

Roger Plata, former co-counsel for the plaintiffs who does not think DMAC can be effective until superintendent Howard Hinesley and attorney John Bowen leave the district.

Mary Schoonover, a longtime district volunteer who was on the plaintiff's negotiating team, said that Escarraz had become "invisible."

Faith Van, who was appointed to finish the last two years of the term for Garnelle Jenkins, the longtime president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter who died this summer. In her letter, Van lamented that DMAC "has deteriorated into an ineffective, bickering organization whose attorneys have taken the leading role in determining how the committee should advise the school board."

The letters set off a chain of responses from school district attorney John Bowen, Escarraz, Madden and Marsha Carter, former DMAC chairwoman. In her letter, Carter says that Escarraz's 11th-hour support for extended grandfathering made her and others "look at you differently."

"I feel very saddened that no one seems to feel it is worth the fight to help DMAC be a viable organization," Carter wrote.

New DMAC members, such as Countryside High School principal Julie Janssen, look forward to the challenge.

"As new parents and new community members and new administrators come in, you get new perspectives," said Janssen, who observed negotiations and mediation sessions to research her dissertation about the transition after a court order is lifted.

The other new DMAC members are parent Marylou Krentzman, former Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey, St. Petersburg High School teacher Don MacNeale, SAC Association member Gregory Mathis, and J. Angela Berry, from the Council of PTAs.

Van and Plata have not been replaced yet.

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