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Board starts work on new definition of integration

Three weeks after its historic vote to seek an end to court-enforced busing, the Pinellas School Board on Tuesday began the real work of convincing a federal judge to release it from a 27-year-old desegregation order.

In just over two hours, board members agreed on a time line that would place them in a courtroom by the fall of 1999. Along the way, they dropped clues about their vision for a school system without busing and set goals to help them design it.

And they talked about doing it all as partners with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the same group they snubbed last month when they cast the vote.

The Legal Defense Fund represents black students in a 1964 lawsuit against the district that triggered the court order.

As soon as possible, the board should "ask the Legal Defense Fund to go hand-in-hand to court," said member Corinne Freeman.

It is not clear whether the Legal Defense Fund will join them.

"My response may not be along the lines (board members) are thinking on," said Enrique Escarraz, attorney for the Legal Defense Fund.

Until last month, Escarraz had cooperated. With Superintendent Howard Hinesley, he spent 1{ years negotiating a proposal to ease strict racial ratios at schools in exchange for a board commitment to increase black student achievement. The board rejected the plan 6 to 1.

But Tuesday, board members said, was a new day. They spent it brainstorming ideas for what the district would be like without the court order.

To Jane Gallucci, it meant "no maximums, no minimums," meaning no limits on how many white or black students could attend a single school. To that, Freeman, Lucile Casey and Susan Latvala nodded agreement.

Casey and Freeman insisted that fundamental and magnet schools would not be dismantled. At the same time, Freeman and Barbara Crockett highlighted the need in predominantly black areas of St. Petersburg for regular neighborhood schools that do not house special programs designed to attract white children.

The board agreed that the district of the future must include equal resources for all schools, diverse opportunities for all students and more stability for elementary students.

Board member Linda Lerner urged the board to "legitimize the feelings" of critics who felt betrayed by the vote to seek an end to court supervision.

"By what the majority of us did, trust has been broken," said Lerner, who voted with the majority.

Lee Benjamin, the only board member to vote against seeking release from the order, stuck to his argument that the county's racial makeup will continue to require busing to create the "stable, integrated school system" that board members say they want.

Latvala told him to move past the "old definition" of integration.

"I didn't know we had a new one," Benjamin said.

"The old one is the court order. What we're doing today is designing a new school system" that will give more choice to all students, Latvala said.

Whatever plan it settles on, the board will attempt to give it to federal Judge Steven Merryday by Dec. 1. Board attorney John Bowen recommended that time line so the case can make it into court by the fall of 1999, possibly allowing for a final ruling by fall 2000.

If the judge lifts the order that quickly, it could mean the board would not have to rezone students for another two-year busing rotation in south county after the 1999-2000 school year.