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Task force to focus on equal education

A court order that sets racial caps for Pinellas County schools should be broadened to monitor whether students are getting an equal education, a task force says.

The group says black students in particular are not being nurtured and challenged once the bus drops them off at the schoolhouse doors.

"We all agree that we need a quality of education everywhere," said Pam Williams, a member of the district-appointed task force. "And when you're talking about quality education being in place in the county, I'm not seeing it."

And so the task force will recommend in April that the School Board work to amend the court order.

The vote of the 13-member group was not close, but neither was it unanimous. In fact, the decision may mean some task force members submit a minority report to the School Board.

Ron Walker, who with Bert Blomquist cast the only dissenting votes, previously had said he would not agree to any of the report if that provision were included.

Walker objected to the motion, he said, because it would be too restrictive and because the remedy for unequal education lies in the community, not the courts.

But Doug Tuthill, who made the motion, said he does not think there is enough leadership and desire in the community for equal education if the court does not enforce it.

Walter Campbell, head of the NAACP Clearwater Branch, said he favors the idea, as long as the method of educational evaluation is stated clearly. That method has not been determined.

The vote came after the task force met with the district's Biracial Advisory Committee, created by the 1971 federal court that also ordered Pinellas' students be bused for desegregation. The committee was established to help monitor the desegregation of the school district.

Members of the biracial committee expressed concerns about assuring quality education and about the need for public hearings on the task force's draft recommendations.

Those recommendations include allowing some majority-black schools, such as Gibbs High School, allowing Lakewood High School to become a neighborhood school for the surrounding integrated community, and relaxing racial quotas at other schools.

The specter of white flight from the Lakewood community was raised by both Larry Williams of the biracial committee and Pam Williams of the task force.

"They will move," Pam Williams said, referring to white residents. "I think this has to be taken in gradual steps. If we had top quality in every classroom, we wouldn't have to have busing anywhere."

She handed out a list of SAT scores from 1993 that show Lakewood High School at the bottom of Pinellas schools. Lakewood's average score was 835 for math and verbal, compared with St. Petersburg High, which was the leader with 1,028.

"I'm telling you, the quality of education is not in place yet," Pam Williams said.

Task force member Shirley Davis, who lives in south St. Petersburg, said she does not understand why people think that a naturally integrated community where people live, shop and play together will object to the local school reflecting the racial balance of the neighborhood.

"That's terribly incongruent," Davis said. "It means we're not walking the walk, we're just talking the talk."

Task force member Walker said everything the task force suggested is "fraught with danger."

"It's not going to be easy," he said, "and what we've heard tonight is just the beginning."