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    Hinesley backing charter school

    The Bay Village Center for Education, once stalled by legal issues, appears headed for approval.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


    LARGO -- Pinellas school Superintendent Howard Hinesley has now recommended approval of what could become the largest charter school ever in the county.

    The Bay Village Center for Education, with seats for 651 middle school students, still needs approval from the School Board next Tuesday at 1 p.m. But a few months ago, Hinesley's support and the school's opening seemed unlikely at best.

    "Right now, believe it or not, it looks like this is going to happen," said Larry Williams, a St. Petersburg City Council member and member of the school's founding board.

    Bay Village, proposed for a vacant shopping center in St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point neighborhood, unwittingly got tangled with the district's efforts to end court-ordered busing.

    Bay Village's founders wanted to open with 750 students. But Hinesley and pupil assignment director Marlene Mueller worried that such a large school would make it difficult for other schools to comply with court-ordered race ratios.

    Opening a charter school is a two-step process. The School Board approves the initial application, and then months later it approves the contract between the charter founders and the district.

    In February, Hinesley recommended that Bay Village's application be turned down. Despite that, board members voted to approve it. Negotiations to write a charter slowed, then halted, when a federal judge got involved in the debate about charter schools.

    U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday told school leaders that he, too, was worried that charter schools would make it difficult for the district to abide by ratios and other parts of a settlement to end the desegregation case.

    In response, the district developed a formula for limiting the number of students who can attend charter schools through 2007. That is the year when the district no longer has to follow race ratios.

    With controls on charters incorporated into the settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Merryday approved the settlement in August.

    That approval, and another important agreement, helped seal Hinesley's support. Bay Village has agreed to stagger its opening and closing times by 30 minutes so it doesn't conflict with nearby Bay Point Elementary and Bay Point Middle schools.

    Plus, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who at one time objected to Bay Village, said they no longer have any problems because the charter has agreed to abide by the court order and settlement.

    Bay Village founders initially balked at the controls on charters, saying that any limits on their school's size would make it financially unfeasible. Founders said they reworked their numbers and determined they could open smaller if they could eventually grow to 750 students.

    Charters are operated by private groups but receive public money so they are considered public schools. The county has three: Whole Child at UPARC, Academie Da Vinci and Athenian Academy. Five more groups have applied to open charters; the School Board will consider their applications later this year.

    Bay Village is backed by a group of community activists, including Williams, a teacher, a social worker, a lawyer and a psychologist. Williams said the group will act as a board of directors but might hire a company to operate the school day to day.

    Bay Village will offer a traditional academic curriculum, with a focus on character development and strong parental involvement.

    Williams is hopeful that Bay Village will be ready to open for the 2001-2002 school year, but he said he won't be sure until some details are worked out. He said his group and the district still have several small issues -- not "deal killers" -- to work out before Tuesday's vote.

    As soon as Bay Village gets approved, much work needs to be done.

    One of the decisions involves the proposed site, the vacant Bay Village shopping center at 2220 62nd Ave. S. Williams said he will know in two weeks whether Bay Village will buy or lease all or part of the facility.

    The school also still is trying to figure out how to provide food service. Williams said founders are interested in having a culinary arts program at the school to provide food a day or so a week. Arrangements will have to be made for the other days.

    Then there are decisions about transportation, hiring teachers, preparing classrooms and officially naming a principal -- all time-consuming tasks.

    "In spite of the length of time and the costliness of the struggle, it appears we're going to get accomplished what we want to do," Williams said. "I think we're going to have a good school."

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