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Proposed busing plan is a good compromise

Published Oct. 8, 2005

After 23 years of busing for desegregation, Pinellas County School Superintendent Howard Hinesley has responded to requests from various community groups to revise the county's busing plan. The superintendent has proposed a revised plan that is, for the most part, well thought out and fair. Most notably, the plan will:

Reduce the number of children who are bused for desegregation by 20 percent while preserving the high level of integration in the county's schools.

Establish guaranteed zones so that students who live within a predetermined radius of a school may attend that school.

Raise the maximum ratio of black students in south county schools from 30 percent to 40 percent, but will not result in any predominantly black or all-white schools.

In my opinion, the superintendent's plan is the best compromise of all the plans that have been proposed in recent years. It maintains a desegregated school system while reducing the number of students who are bused to schools far from home. Few would argue the benefits, in terms of student and parental involvement, of having students attend schools closer to home.

Most of the controversy revolves around two of the plan's provisions _ increasing the maximum ratio of black students to 40 percent in south county high schools, and eliminating the minimum black student ratio in north county elementary schools. Some fear that as north county schools become increasingly white in terms of student population, more resources will be allocated to those north county schools to the detriment of integrated south county schools. The dismal pre-desegregation track record of the county school administration certainly supports this theory.

The blatantly racist treatment of Gibbs High and other black schools under the "separate but equal" educational doctrine of the '50s and '60s has left a permanent blemish on the rectitude of the Pinellas County school administration. To ask those who have experienced injustice at the hands of past school administrations to accept a new busing proposal without adequate safeguards against unfair school funding is both unfair and unwise.

So the question that Mr. Hinesley must answer is: What changes have occurred in the budgetary process since 1971 to ensure that unfair resource allocation (in the form of textbooks, computers, facilities and other resources) will not recur in the future if south county schools are allowed to have a higher ratio of black students, and if some north county schools become predominantly white?

In deciding whether to support the superintendent's plan, I researched the current budgeting process for Pinellas County schools. The current budget process allocates operational resources based on the number of students attending a given school (full-time equivalents, or FTEs) and on a staffing model. This system is generally accepted as fair and non-political. However, if the school administration wishes to gain support from the total community (especially those who have suffered at the hands of past administrations), it must explain in detail how the budget process works, and why the current system will facilitate the fair allocation of resources regardless of the racial makeup of a given school's student body.

I speak from the perspective of a parent of a 2-year-old who has not yet entered the school system. When she does, however, I would like her to attend Maximo Elementary, Bay Point and Lakewood High School _ all of which are within a 3-mile radius of our home. If that requires raising the maximum black student ratio to 40 percent or beyond, so be it.

It is interesting that Florida A&M (my alma mater) and other predominantly black universities are recognized as outstanding educational institutions _ yet some who praise (and have attended) black universities fear educational apocalypse if black student populations in our high schools are increased to 40 percent. There is no reason that a high school with a 40 percent black student body (or 90 percent, for that matter) cannot be as educationally excellent as a predominantly white school, given fair resource allocation.

It is our responsibility as parents to stop cowering behind court-ordered student ratios and get involved in the educational process. Black economic and political power is exponentially greater than it was in the days of separate but equal. It is up to us to use that power to ensure that all schools are funded fairly. In the unlikely event that the Pinellas County school administration reverts to the racist tendencies of the past, it will be our responsibility to confront the problem head on _ with all our political and economic resources.

"White flight" from south county to north is not an issue that the School Board is in a position to affect, nor should be overly concerned with. It is a complex societal phenomenon that involves many issues. If fact, the term "middle-class flight" is more accurate, because middle-class blacks are fleeing the problems of the inner city just as middle-class whites are. Segregated housing patterns have been the norm in this country since its inception, and it is hypocritical that many who espouse the absolute necessity of integrated schools live in segregated neighborhoods. Social engineering is not the job of the school administration, education is.

It is time to focus less on where our children receive their education and more on the quality of the education that they receive. In the interest of improving the educational process for all students, the School Board should approve the superintendent's plan.

Kenneth T. Welch lives in St. Petersburg. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.