Pinellas County School Board member Lew Williams was once a Boy Scout. But he also recalls wondering what the water tasted like in the water fountains he was banned from using because of his skin color.
So when a fellow board member urged him to vote against a program with ties to the Boy Scouts of America because the group excludes gays, Williams listened.
"It just triggered something with me," he said Wednesday. "All my life I've stood against discrimination of all kinds."
The board voted 4-3 Tuesday against giving $54,838 to Learning for Life, a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America. The money is part of $869,000 in taxpayer dollars appropriated by the Legislature this year for eight local school districts, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, specifically for Learning for Life's character education program.
Board member Linda Lerner argued that approving the program for Pinellas schools would send the wrong message to gay and lesbian students.
Deron Smith, a spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, wrote in one of two e-mails to the St. Petersburg Times that, "Learning for Life programs are not Boy Scout programs and Boy Scout membership requirements have no relevance to Learning for Life programs."
Furthermore, Smith wrote, "While the membership standards of the BSA do not impact Learning for Life, the leadership of BSA maintains that its programs are not the appropriate forum to discuss and debate one's sexuality."
Lerner has been opposing the local program since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 ruled the Boy Scouts, a private group, could exclude homosexuals. Tuesday was the first time she got enough support to remove the program: Williams, Janet Clark and Terry Krassner all voted with her.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the board had received 30 e-mails, many opposing the board's decision but some supporting it.
"Shame on you!" read the subject header in one e-mail from a sender who interpreted the move as "forcing an alternative lifestyle on our Boy Scouts and on our students."
"YES" read another applauding the vote. "What if the same policy had similar discriminatory language pertaining to Hispanics, African American, etc?"
"There are many subdivisions that only allow seniors to reside in them; is this discrimination against non-seniors?" wrote a third person, who pleaded with Williams and Krassner to reconsider their votes.
Both board members on Wednesday said they stand by their votes. "The military has finally made changes, and I'm hoping the Scouts can, too," said Krassner, referring to the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Clark, who has voted with Lerner three years in a row, could not be reached.
Diane Thorton, national director of Learning for Life in Irving, Texas, said in an e-mail to the Times she also hopes the board will reconsider: "As a different program, the membership standards of the BSA do not impact Learning for Life. We are disappointed this board did not weigh their decision on the merits of the Learning for Life program, but rather on a perceived association."
At Equality Florida, spokesman Brian Winfield said the board's move was a "teachable moment" in terms of character education for Pinellas students.
"At the heart of it, you're teaching character education to children from an organization that at its core is discriminatory," Winfield said. "These are tax dollars being spent, and they should be directed to a program that is not discriminatory."
Had it been approved, the program would have been used in six Pinellas County schools and the district's dropout prevention program. Board members on both sides of the vote said they favor replacing the programs with other character development curriculum, which is already widely taught in the district.
In Hillsborough, meanwhile, where the Legislature slated $91,000 for Learning for Life programs, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said he had not heard of any similar controversy.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]