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Controlled choice panel sticks to court order

The deadlock is broken _ for now.

With an 18-4 vote last week, members of the controlled choice task force decided to stick to a federal court order that allows the student population of each Pinellas County public school to be up to 30 percent black. Controlled choice would allow parents to choose from any school within a broad geographic area.

The four dissenting votes _ Scott Davis, Mary Schoonover, Gerry Howe and Herb Thompson _ had urged limiting the proportion of black students to the percentage of African-Americans in the general area of the school.

That vote and the resolution of that emotional issue did not eliminate the deep divisions.

Those could create more delays as members grapple with other controversies:

Which schools will be clustered together?

Under controlled choice, the county would be divided into several large geographic zones. Parents would be able to choose from any of the schools in the zone where they live as long as it did not overcrowd the school or violate the federal desegregation order.

How many seats should be reserved for neighborhood children?

Some think children who live near schools should have a better chance to get in than those who live farther away.

How big is a neighborhood?

This would influence how many children would get preferential treatment for nearby schools. Obviously, the larger the area, the more competition for the available seats.

Those decisions must be made quickly. The task force has only five more meetings scheduled before May 27, when the plan is to be presented to the Pinellas County School Board.

The scenario makes at least one task force member doubt the group will come up with a plan.

"I think what happened was, they took the word plan seriously," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

That made many members of the task force, Moore said, think they had to develop the blueprints for a controlled choice system. Thus, he said, task force members are becoming way too bogged down in details. "Are we going to have a plan ready?" Moore asked. "Not if we intend to have all 250 pages of blueprints ready."

Moore said that is why task force members have gotten into so many arguments. They are making assumptions about the district's busing system and what it can do without any advice from people who actually run it. They are assuming the district cannot quickly assign pupils to schools, so they are setting up six-month sign-up periods.

Task force members have spent weeks arguing about whether to follow the court order and have now decided "we're going to follow the court order," he said. "Well, who the hell are we to think we aren't?"

The ultimate irony, Moore said, is that Superintendent Howard Hinesley has already told task force members that he will take their recommendations under advisement during the summer.

After school begins, Hinesley will present the district's plan. Then hearings will be held. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed the original desegregation lawsuit, and other community groups will have time for comment and suggestions. Other local governments will have time to comment and the School Board will have its say. Then a federal judge will decide whether the plan should be implemented.

"You're doing all this work and the American Society of Tampering's going to look at it next," Moore said. "Everyone's going to have a piece of this thing."

The final plan could have no resemblance to anything the task force turns out, Moore said.

Instead, task force members should be sketching a more general picture of how the system would look. The district then should have its experts figure out the details to building the system.

"Let's give them the best of what we have, then declare a victory and go home," Moore said.