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City-USF pact on urban effort is under scrutiny

City Council members who question the value of their Urban Initiative contract with the University of South Florida are not alone.

The university officials most familiar with the program feel the same way.

"We have to decide whether we want to continue in this contractual relationship with the city, and we're not sure right now that we do," said Doug Tuthill, who heads the Urban Initiative program at the university's St. Petersburg campus.

As it nears the end of a two-year contract with the city, the Urban Initiative, which was created to improve conditions for African-Americans in St. Petersburg, is increasingly under scrutiny. Though the $50,000-a-year program has had some successes _ for instance, it helped organize a literacy program for inner-city kids _ Tuthill acknowledges that much of what he has done was behind the scenes.

And some of what City Council members can see, they don't like. Tuthill's participation in creating a charter school application for the Uhuru movement has drawn the ire of council chairwoman Bea Griswold and started the debate over whether the initiative has ended its run.

"I'm not sure the university appreciated the complexity of the politics" surrounding the local program, Tuthill said. "The university came down from its ivory tower _ that's good _ but got its nose bloodied. Now, how many more cheap shots does the university have to take?"

Tuthill, a former social studies teacher and president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, and his boss, university Dean Bill Heller, have said they assisted the group because they were a community-based organization trying to provide educational opportunities.

In a November letter to the Times, Griswold wrote that she would ask the council "to end the Urban Initiative partnership with USF and thus any association with the Uhuru charter school." The School Board will discuss the Uhuru charter application next week, but the district's administration has recommended it be denied.

No formal vote to terminate the city's contract with the Urban Initiative has occurred. But, if nothing else, the two-year agreement is scheduled to end this summer. Any renewals or extensions would have to be renegotiated.

For now, Tuthill and Heller are expected to attend a Feb. 10 council subcommittee meeting to discuss the contract and their relationship with the city.

"I was surprised when the issue of the Uhuru school was brought up," Heller said. "I can't imagine that anybody would think that was wrong. Anything that helps kids is the right thing, whether it's an Uhuru group or Academy Prep," a private school geared to primarily assist at-risk African-American children.

Both Mayor David Fischer and City Administrator Tish Elston said they thought the contractual relationship with USF had been beneficial to the city.

Among council members, though, the agreement drew mixed reviews.

Council member Larry Williams said he hasn't seen much for the $50,000 the city pays USF each year.

"I'm not overly impressed with the program" said Williams. "I think it was done simply to get Doug Tuthill a job. He ended up at South Florida, and we simply pay his salary."

Said Tuthill: "That's wrong, that's offensive and that's typical. The mayoral campaigns have already begun, and things are getting increasingly messy for a university that likes to stay above the fray."

In fact, he said, "I've told Dean Heller that I'm not sure that I want to renew my contract (with USF) in June. I'm exploring other opportunities, and that may have an effect on his desire to renew this particular contract with the city."

Council member Frank Peterman, whose district includes a large part of the area targeted by the Urban Initiative, said their work had made a difference.

"They're fulfilling assistance to the community," Peterman said. "For the most part, I've felt good about Tuthill's work. He does take a lot of abuse, but I believe that they are carrying out the directives of that contract."

Elston said Tuthill had helped the city on several fronts. He facilitated the recent "retreats" that brought police administrators face to face with neighborhood leaders, helped set up job fairs in traditionally high-unemployment neighborhoods and helped expand the St. Pete Reads tutoring program.

Heller added that the university also has been a leader in the Hope VI community task force, part of a public housing redevelopment, has provided professors to assist the Olive B. McLin Community History Project and expanded USF's "service learning" program for its students.

"I think it's an important relationship," Elston said of the city and USF. "And I think it's an appropriate role for a university in the community, but I do understand their frustration. They're playing that role and then they're getting beat up for it."

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