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School board stands firm on busing decision

Pinellas School Board members who voted to seek an end to court-enforced busing two weeks ago defended their vote Tuesday, refuting an NAACP official who said they moved too quickly and without educating black parents about the changes that move might bring.

They also took a formal vote to support Superintendent Howard Hinesley's offer to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to collaborate on a plan to maintain desegregated schools without court supervision.

They were criticized, however.

"We now have to wonder what your word means to you and we are certainly struggling as to whether we can take your word again," said Marsha Carter, chairwoman of the education committee for the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

Two weeks ago, the board surprised many by rejecting an agreement between Hinesley and the Legal Defense Fund that would have limited busing for desegregation. Instead, they voted to seek an end to busing by asking a federal judge to release them from the 1971 desegregation order, which requires cross-county busing to meet strict racial ratios.

The Legal Defense Fund represents black students in a lawsuit that prompted the court order. It consults with the NAACP but is a separate group.

Carter praised Lee Benjamin, the only board member to vote against seeking an end to the court order and who on Tuesday urged the board to reconsider.

"The general public does not understand that without busing we would have to eventually return to a segregated school system," Benjamin said.

Other board members stood by their vote. They said they want to work with the Legal Defense Fund to create a new desegregation plan.

They also said they are still committed to increasing academic achievement among black students, a key component of the rejected agreement.

"I don't at all feel like we didn't operate in good faith," said board member Susan Latvala. "We listened to the public we are moving forward in the right way."

In other action, the board voted to hold a workshop to discuss an alternative high school for troubled teens.

Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice urged the board to work with the county to build before 2003, even though at that point Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue is scheduled to help pay for the school. Board members reiterated their commitment to the concept, but want to know if moving up the plans will jeopardize other projects, including a proposed vocational high school.

The workshop has not been scheduled.