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Schools' racial mix, busing may change

In what could be a historic step, the School Board unanimously approved a plan Tuesday to increase the percentage of black students in Pinellas schools and extend the number of years that children could be bused.

With the first action, board members increased from 30 percent to 35 percent the number of black children allowed in public schools.

Under the second, children would not have to be transferred from one school to another as frequently as they are now. Instead of being shifted every two years, they would remain in the same school for up to six years.

Although board members approved the proposals Tuesday, parents should not expect to see any changes anytime soon. The vote was just the first step in a long process as the district tries to alter the 26-year-old federal court order governing desegregation in Pinellas public schools.

The increase in the racial cap, under discussion for years, still would require approval from various groups and individuals, including a federal judge.

The same approval would be required for changes in students transferred to new schools.

Currently, the board shifts children in south Pinellas at least every two years during an unpopular, emotional procedure called rezoning.

What happens is this: Children from predominantly white areas are moved from their closest school to a distant school to help maintain the appropriate racial balance.

At the end of two years, those children return to the nearby school and another group of mostly white children is bused away.

Under the proposal, children would be bused for three, four, five, or even their entire six years in elementary school. The idea is to provide greater stability for children by allowing them to stay in one school.

District officials also hope it will make parents more eager to get involved in schools. Parents who know their children are going to be at a school only for two yearsare reluctant to become involved, they say.

The approval process will begin with negotiations with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed the original desegregation lawsuit. Assuming Defense Fund attorneys agree with the board's plan, it would then be brought back to the board.

At that point, the plan would be run by the Biracial Advisory Committee, a group set up by the federal court to monitor desegregation in Pinellas, and would be the topic of public hearings. Then the board gets its final chance to decide.

After that, the plan would go before a federal judge for final approval.

The earliest it could take effect would be the 1998 zoning cycle. That means the 1998-99 school year would be the first time children could be affected by the plan.