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Parents raise concerns about school choice

Apathy and frustration were common themes Monday at three Pinellas County forums on how to assign students to public schools.

"I'm disappointed in this forum," Gregory Duckett said at a St. Petersburg meeting. "We can't talk about transportation or budget."

For that matter, there was little the handful of parents and community members who attended the forums could address. A 30-member task force charged with developing a plan for controlled choice had billed the Monday meetings as the unveiling of a draft plan.

Instead, task force members have become embedded in a dispute over race, specifically the number of black children who should attend schools with white children. Hence, the nucleus of any plan _ the attendance zone maps, transportation and cost _ are being held up until the dispute can be settled.

So, task force members again showed a video that described controlled choice, which allows parents to choose from several schools in a geographic area, and asked for comment.

What task force members got for the most part was low turnout _ 13 residents in St. Petersburg, 15 in Tarpon Springs, 45 in Largo _ and questions they could not answer.

Deborah Rowells of Tarpon Springs said she is worried black children could be bused to schools that aren't a first choice because schools must abide by desegregation laws.

"There aren't that many brown kids in North Pinellas County," she said. "So how do you divvy up the brown kids?

In St. Petersburg, the frustrations and questions bubbled into longstanding grievances that some feel have never been heard.

Mary Holland said this was the third public forum on controlled choice she has attended. No matter how often she hears the pitch, Holland said, the same fact keeps bothering her: There are few schools in the inner city that are close to black students.

"It still means minority kids are going to be bused," Holland said.

Clarence Welch asked how people could be sure the district would put the money into schools that are not academically demanding.

As task force members reassured the audience their concerns will be heard, Lessie Stotts asked, "Where's the board been for that last umpteen years? These things we're talking to you about aren't new. We've been telling you this."