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Uhuru school plan loses ground

Published Sep. 26, 2005

Key lawyers say the proposed Marcus Garvey Academy would violate federal court restrictions.

The lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Enrique Escarraz, has asked the School Board to deny a charter school application by the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which wants to open an academy for African-American students.

The School Board will consider the Uhuru application for the Marcus Garvey Academy on Feb. 8, along with another application that also faces an uncertain future. The Bay Village Center for Education has proposed opening a "traditional" middle school in south St. Petersburg.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley said he has not decided his position on either application. But James Scaggs, an attorney for the district, said it would be his recommendation that both be denied.

"We would not recommend a charter that violates the court order," Scaggs said.

In Scaggs' view, as well as Escarraz's, the proposed Marcus Garvey Academy would violate federal court restrictions on the percentage of black students in any single school.

The Bay Village application falls short because the district has agreed not to create any more fundamental schools until at least 2007. And Scaggs said he thinks the Bay Village School qualifies as a fundamental school, with an emphasis on traditional teaching methods.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but receive public money and are considered public schools. Pinellas County has three charter schools.

The district received five charter school applications in the fall. Once an application arrives, organizers meet with district officials who outline their questions and concerns. The applicant can amend the application or leave it as is.

Once that is finished, the School Board decides whether to accept or reject an application. If the application is accepted, district officials begin negotiating a charter. If the application is rejected, the applicant can appeal to the state.

Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the Uhuru movement, said he would push to get the charter school application approved despite Escarraz's objections. He said he will appeal to the federal judge, the state, anyone who will listen, to get the school open.

"It is ridiculous for Mr. Escarraz to say something about us segregating the students when the school system is the one (that) is segregating them," Yeshitela said.

If need be, Yeshitela said, the Marcus Garvey Academy could become a private school.

That's what Academy Prep Center for Education decided to do after flirting with the idea of taking public money as a charter.

The school for 45 disadvantaged boys, most African-American, has received broad community support. If Academy Prep had applied, would Escarraz have had the same objection he does to the Marcus Garvey Academy?

Escarraz said that saying no to Academy Prep would have been more difficult because the school is already operating and has had success helping disadvantaged black boys. Even so, Escarraz said he would have objected to Academy Prep becoming a charter school because of the makeup of its student body.

"The Marcus Garvey Academy has no track record," Escarraz said. "I was very happy to see that Academy Prep decided to stay private."

Escarraz has not reviewed the Bay Village application and would not comment on it.

Larry Williams, a St. Petersburg City Council member on the school's founding board, said Bay Village would be a traditional school, not a fundamental school. He did not provide examples of the difference between the two.

He said Bay Village was going to amend its application to address the district's concerns, but the group was told it would take another 60 days to land on the School Board agenda if any changes were made.

"We're not going to do that," Williams said. "We just don't think we can delay our process."

When asked how much weight he would give Escarraz's objections, Hinesley said: "One hundred percent."

No date has been set for the other three charter school applications to be heard. Escarraz also has written a letter objecting to the Pinellas County Community Charter School, operated by a non-profit California corporation. Escarraz says the application "appears designed to disregard and disobey the requirements of the Court Order."