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A matter of trust // A school board behind closed doors

When the doors were closed last month, Pinellas school Superintendent Howard Hinesley told School Board members to keep their mouths closed about a 25-year-old federal court order on school desegregation. "Ultimately, the judge is going to decide," Hinesley said, ". . . and what you don't want to do is get in a public debate over it. . . . You don't want to go through what the Bucs are going through on this issue."

The Bucs?

That Hinesley and School Board attorney John Bowen would insist there be no public debate on an issue so important as court-ordered desegregation is offensive enough. But the transcript from their April 10 closed-door meeting, which was released Friday following a circuit judge's order, reveals a healthy dose of duplicity.

Despite public assurances to the contrary, the School Board did in fact discuss _ though not endorse _ elimination of the court order. Said Bowen: "That's certainly a possibility for you to consider, if that's where you want to head."

Despite assurances to the contrary, the board did not merely follow the negotiating path it established after extensive public hearings in 1994. On the issue of the 40 percent cap on black enrollment in south-county schools, Hinesley specifically noted that: "You voted it down, and you can vote it up."

Despite assurances to the contrary, the board did in fact bring up new desegregation ideas, such as controlled choice and converting one south-county elementary school into a fundamental school.

In short, what happened behind closed doors was different from what has happened in the light of day. For that, School Board members will have to answer. Unfortunately, they still don't seem to get it.

Bowen, having once insisted he would be "guilty of malpractice" if he allowed the board to meet in public about the court order, now wants to carry his fight on to higher courts.

A circuit judge emphatically said the board violated the law with its secret meeting, but Bowen is now preaching about "legal precedent."

What's the concern here? That requiring a public school board to meet in public would somehow harm the course of government in Florida? Can an elected school board member run for re-election while spending tax money to fight such a precedent?

The transcript shows why the board needs to meet in public when discussing desegregation. The ideas the board discussed, such as a cluster of choice schools or construction of new magnets or relaxing the court-ordered ratio in south county, are all reasonable ones and worthy of exploring.

But every one of them affects the larger community, and schools and parents deserve to be consulted. How do you think the principal or School Advisory Council president at Campbell Park Elementary School now feels, having learned the board privately debated whether to convert Campbell Park to a fundamental school?

The secrecy is poisonous, and board members continue the fight at their own peril. These are matters of vital community interest, about race and schools _ not about the Bucs.

Their words in public and in private

Here are some statements from Pinellas school officials concerning the federal desegregation court order. One set was made in public, either to reporters or in written documents or in public meetings. The other set was made in an April 10 closed meeting, the transcript of which was released Friday, following a circuit judge's ruling that the meeting should not have been secret.

IN PUBLIC: Superintendent Howard Hinesley, in 1994, announcing his recommendations to change the desegregation order: My position is that we want to reach out to the entire community, certainly including the plaintiffs, and ask them to give this a thorough review. Listen to the community.

IN PRIVATE: Hinesley: Ultimately, the judge is going to decide . . . and what you don't want to do is get in a public debate over it. . . . You don't want to go through what the Bucs are going through on this issue.

IN PUBLIC: School Board attorney John Bowen: I want to put (this) to rest. There is some misunderstanding, as I understand it, that we are looking to go to unitary status, and that is NOT the case.

IN PRIVATE: Bowen: The judged opened it up going towards unitary. . . . I heard it to mean he wants us to start looking towards seeing if we're unitary and get rid of the case from him, and, if he's telling us that and that's where you all want to go, the plaintiffs are certainly not interested in that at all. But that's certainly a possibility for you to consider, if that's where you want to head.

IN PUBLIC: School Board member Barbara Crockett, following a December 1994 vote to reject a higher ratio for the desegre-

gation order: The 40 percent was too much, too fast.

IN PRIVATE: Bowen: You voted that (40 percent) down last time.

Hinesley: You voted it down, and you can vote it up.

School Board member Susan Latvala: We can vote it up.

IN PUBLIC: Latvala, at community meeting in May: There's a lot of people out there talking about "What is this secret meeting and why are you doing this?" It was not a secret meeting. Let's put this to bed.

IN PRIVATE: Bowen: Now it's very important that the negotiations and all of this that we have in executive session stay in executive session. Don't make any press statements. . . . I think if they try to get you to say what went on, you can say, "I'm not at liberty to say."

IN PUBLIC: School Board Chairwoman Andrea Thacker, in a March letter: It was not accurate to state that school officials were trying to point the finger at the NAACP, which you stated is a party to the desegregation court order. . . . We have not tried to blame any organization for any problems in complying with the court order.

IN PRIVATE: School Board member Lee Benjamin: What I see is the old guard of people that have gone through the real segregation, (former NAACP chapter President Perkins) Shelton, and all the (NAACP chapter president) Garnelle Jenkinses and so on. . . .

School Board member Corinne Freeman: And (Sevell) Brown.

Benjamin: They're the ones that have certainly generated these organizations to try to keep the 30 percent (court-ordered cap).