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Blame the School Board

Published Sep. 13, 2005

A special communications program for Melrose Elementary and Hopkins Middle Schools in St. Petersburg is in jeopardy, and the easy target to blame is the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But the NAACP's legal objection to the new magnets was foreseeable. More to the point, it is a direct response to the Pinellas County School Board's double-cross last month of a compromise desegregation plan that was two years in the making.

Board members, led by Barbara Crockett, spoiled for this fight. Now students at Melrose and Hopkins may be among the first losers.

As they continue to march down a confrontational path they did not have to choose, board members are still trying to pretend as if their April 14 vote was part of some unstated master educational plan. They are still attempting to portray as courageous a vote that did little more than pander to emotions. They even had the cheek recently to suggest that the NAACP Defense Fund, after having spent two years negotiating cooperatively to reduce the burdens of busing only to be officially betrayed and told by Crockett that "I'm tired of caring what they think," should now work to come up with a new desegregation plan.

Marsha Carter, chairwoman of the NAACP's education committee, offered a remarkably civil response: "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."

The mistrust is but one of the many obstacles ahead. The NAACP's objection to the new magnet programs points up another. If a school system is seeking to eliminate its desegregation court order because it believes it has achieved "unitary" status, then why would the federal government spend money for magnet programs designed to desegregate schools voluntarily? Why should the federal government help Melrose and Hopkins? In the past several budget years, School Board members have siphoned county money away from some magnets, including the arts program at Gibbs High School. Where will they find local money to replace the $2.5-million in federal dollars they may lose at Melrose and Hopkins?

The more obvious contradiction for board members, however, is the point that NAACP attorney Enrique Escarraz raised in his memorandum to the court. If the board is truly listening to its constituents, and those constituents truly want neighborhood schools, then why would the school system be starting new magnet schools that spend money to entice students away from their neighborhoods? As Escarraz wrote, that's "an illogical placing of the cart before the horse."

The programs at Melrose and Hopkins reveal the lie in the board's assurances to parents who want neighborhood schools. Over the past two decades, most of the schools within the black communities in St. Petersburg and Clearwater have been either shut down or converted to magnets. Unless the board is planning to dump the magnet and fundamental programs that exist within those schools, the concept of "neighborhood schools" would be meaningful only to white students.

The board had a cooperative solution that would have helped almost immediately to relieve some of the burdens of busing, without protracted legal battles. But it chose confrontation, and now it is clear that students will be made to suffer. Board members can try to blame the NAACP if they want. But the votes were cast by Barbara Crockett, Lucile Casey, Corinne Freeman, Jane Gallucci, Susan Latvala and Linda Lerner. They started this fight, without a clue as to where it would lead.