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With post-busing secret out, real work begins

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 1999


It is remarkable what can happen overnight because of a little sunshine.

Pinellas school officials last week tried to sell a proposed agreement to end court-ordered busing as the final result of secret negotiations.

That turned out to be wrong.

After the agreement became public, parents complained they were blind-sided. School Board members Tom Todd, Jane Gallucci and Susan Latvala went to bed Thursday night prepared to vote against the deal Friday morning.

By then, Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley already had called court-appointed mediator Peter Grilli. Grilli set up still another secret meeting Thursday night between negotiators for the school system and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

By Friday morning's School Board meeting, there was a new version of the deal. The copies were still warm when they were handed out.

Proximity, which had been out, was in.

That is the term that indicates that students who live near a particular school would have a better chance of attending that school than students who live farther away, starting in 2003. The agreement does not require or define proximity during four years of controlled choice. The School Board would work out details such as the size of the proximity zone and the number of school desks allocated to proximity-zone students.

The change provided enough political cover for the School Board to vote unanimously for the proposed settlement. It was not enough to satisfy roughly three dozen parents and voters who spoke against the deal.

For decades Pinellas has had one of the best school systems in Florida and one of the most desegregated in the country. Now it sits on the edge of a cliff.

The public debate is off to a bad start. Parents and teachers are suspicious and confused. That is the predictable result of too much secrecy.

The framework for ending court-ordered busing has been written in an environment of private meetings, gag orders and threats of contempt charges against anyone who dared to educate the public. It has been triggered by the demands of an activist federal judge, Steven Merryday, who seems more interested in clearing his desk of a 35-year-old lawsuit than in what comes next. It has been shepherded by Grilli, a mediator who acts like an advocate.

It was Grilli, not the School Board, who presented the reworked agreement to a skeptical crowd Friday. It was Grilli, not school officials, who first defended it. That was inappropriate and outside his job description.

Now Pinellas residents finally will have their say as the details are worked out. It promises to be a public debate unlike any we have seen in decades. Bigger than St. Petersburg's fight over the building of the dome in the mid-'80s. Bigger than Clearwater's years-old struggle with the Church of Scientology.

The danger is this discussion could rekindle old battles between north versus south Pinellas, black versus white.

Friday's public hearing was dominated by white, north Pinellas residents. They are politically active and not bashful about reminding School Board members they can decide elections. Few speakers were from South Pinellas. Even fewer were black.

For this proposed settlement to gain acceptance, the School Board is going to have to make an extraordinary effort to provide information and seek reaction from all corners of the county.

School Board member Susan Latvala said the issue is not race. In fact, it is shrouded in both race and politics. Beyond the lawyers and School Board members eager for an agreement, where is the constituency for this deal?

There likely will be more busing, not less. Some schools in St. Petersburg probably will be resegregated. There will be a temporary moratorium on creating more magnet and fundamental schools. And there aren't expected to be any absolute guarantees for any students that they will attend their first choice of schools.

One more thing: All of this will cost more, but School Board members don't know how much. They voted for it anyway.

None of this is going to trigger pep rallies by parents.

For the School Board and the community, the hard work is ahead. Up to four cluster zones of schools have to be drawn. Proximity has to be decided. So does the grandfather clause, which will determine how much current students are affected by controlled choice.

And it all has to be done in the open and with as much public involvement as possible.

"We have to do a better job of educating," School Board member Linda Lerner said. "We have to make it more understandable."

Otherwise, this will never fly.

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