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The people's business // PINELLAS SCHOOL BOARD

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Most corporate boards would never dream of debating their financial plans and investments in public. They wouldn't consider discussing the performance of their chief officer in a meeting for everyone to see. They wouldn't dare share salary and budget documents.

In Florida, though, government business is conducted differently. Since 1909, government business has been deemed to be the people's business. And both the State Constitution and state law establish that the people's business is to be conducted in public.

For some reason, the Pinellas School Board fails to understand that distinction. In its stubborn refusal to openly debate school desegregation and a 25-year-old court order, the School Board is behaving as if it were a private corporate board. It has an attorney, John Bowen, who says his client is not the public but the board members themselves. And so board members are now acting as if they are somehow serving their constituents by shutting them out of discussions on one of the most sensitive education issues in the past three decades.

Their attitude is dangerous.

While it is true that local government lobbyists were able to get the Legislature in 1993 to create a public-meetings exemption for discussions with attorneys on active cases, School Board members would be wise to look at the history. That exemption was created during a window of legislative opportunity, following a statewide referendum in 1992 in which 83 percent of voters said they wanted open government; the constitutional amendment contained a loophole accepting any exemptions that were created up until July 1993.

Peter Wallace, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer and the respected speaker of the State House, says the exemption was not intended to cover such broad and long-term policy issues as desegregation. To that extent, the school board's actions invite not only public scorn but the attention of lawmakers. If this is to be the result of that hastily passed 1993 exemption, then it needs to be revoked.

Whether intended or not, the board's desegregation strategy this time also has the effect of concentrating more power with attorneys and less with policymakers and the public. Already, Bowen has become the desegregation spokesman, having advised board members not to even answer questions in public. Incredibly, superintendent Howard Hinesley, when asked how the school system should proceed with desegregation changes, responded: "You're asking the wrong guy." How's that for executive leadership?

The direction that Bowen is following is far from clear. He told a reporter after the March 27 federal court hearing that "the whole thing's on the table." At the hearing itself, when asked by the judge whether the court order should be terminated, he said: "We can . . . look at that, and possibly that would be part of our (negotiation) discussions." Later, Hinesley said he and Bowen were not seeking to eliminate the court order, but that they would seek to increase the permitted African-American enrollment ratio in south county to as high as 39 percent. That in itself is a curious position. The board and community groups in 1994 strongly rejected 40 percent. How is 39 percent suddenly acceptable?

In Pinellas, for the first 22 years of the court order's existence, the School Board never met once in executive session to discuss it. The law prohibited such sessions, and board members accepted the wisdom of allowing the public to be a part of the process at every step. Now they have an attorney who insists that such a course of public debate is patently offensive. Bowen only reluctantly decided this week that any formal vote to change the desegregation plan would be held in public _ after private discussions. Does he really believe that cosmetic concession will satisfy members of the public who feel closed out of the process?

The open government laws in Florida exist for precisely these reasons, to allow people to see and be a part of how their government forms policy. Governments do have to behave differently than private corporations, and, in hiding behind their attorney, board members are only giving their constituents further reason to mistrust them. An election season is ahead, and John Bowen will not have to explain himself to voters. School Board members will.