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The problem: Keeping integration alive

District officials want to hear residents' ideas on the new student assignment plan. The first public forum is tonight.

Starting tonight, the Pinellas School District will seek help to solve a difficult issue: How do you keep the county's schools integrated by choice when its neighborhoods are mostly segregated by choice?

Superintendent Howard Hinesley and other district officials will hold a meeting at Countryside High School with School Advisory Councils to talk about the new student assignment plan that will replace court-ordered busing for desegregation. It is the first of seven public meetings during the next two weeks.

District officials stress that they will come to the meetings with open minds, with no plans on paper, with no decisions made. But they also come to the meeting with ideas of their own _ and an understanding that the district's agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund carries with it some established principles.

Between 2003 and 2007, black student enrollment at each school would be capped, though it would rise from 37 percent to 42 percent. No matter how loudly parents scream that they want neighborhood schools, that could be impossible while ratios are in place.

The district has to come up with a single assignment plan for the entire county. When the county is divided into three or four zones, each can have no more than 39 percent nor less than 7 percent black student population.

"No matter what people say at these meetings, the ratios won't change," said Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignment.

The debate over the new student assignment plan has its roots in 1964, when six black parents sued the school district for discriminating against black students. In 1971, the district was placed under a federal court order that required cross-county busing for desegregation.

In December, the School Board reached an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-enforced busing. The settlement still has to be approved by a federal judge, who will hold a fairness hearing on Feb. 28. The judge's ruling is expected soon after that.

Under the agreement, between 2003 and 2007, school assignment will not be based solely on a student's home address. The county will be divided into zones, and students will pick schools in their zone through a lottery.

Some priority will be given to siblings and students with disabilities. How priorities will be weighted _ and how many other priorities there will be _ is up to the School Board.

In a perfect world, between 2003 and 2007, schools would become integrated by choice. In a perfect world that would continue after 2007, when the School Board could throw out the ratios.

But district officials know that if the ratios are tossed in 2007, the district could very well become segregated again, with parents primarily choosing neighborhood schools. That could create all-black schools in southern St. Petersburg and all-white schools all over north Pinellas County.

Knowing this, district officials want to develop a plan that takes into account as much public input as possible while trying to create a plan that will maintain diversity long after the federal court gets out of Pinellas classrooms. They are already talking about ways that could be accomplished.

"You can't rule out looking at what other districts have done," said James Madden, who is in charge of implementing the district's post-court order plans. "But what we don't want to do is go into these sessions with preconceived notions. We don't have anything on paper."

At the center of this issue is the word "proximity" and how to define it.

The original settlement proposed in December did not include a provision that students would be given a priority to attend schools near their home. But a last minute change to allow a "proximity preference" of some kind was made when parents complained; the settlement passed unanimously.

There are myriad ways to define proximity. Tonight, to spur meaningful discussion and encourage helpful input, Hinesley will explain several ways that the word could be defined.

For instance, a circle could be drawn around a particular school and every student who lives inside the circle could be guaranteed admission. That could be combined with a system in which every home is assigned to the closest school. People who live outside the circle would have a "better than average chance" of getting into the school closest to home.

That scenario appeals to some district officials, who say that a guaranteed zone would have to be relatively small _ maybe only one-fourth or one-half a mile _ to meet the goal of integrated schools.

In parts of St. Petersburg, where most of the county's black students live in densely developed neighborhoods, too large a guarantee zone could mean all-black, crowded schools. Yet a large guaranteed admission zone is exactly what some parents in north county, such as those living near Palm Harbor University High School, would want because they bought homes to be near certain campuses.

Another option is not having a guaranteed admission zone at all, but only have a proximity area where students have a "better than average" chance of getting in than those who live farther away.

Other words will have bearing on the details of the new student assignment plan. Should a student be allowed to continue at just his or her current school, or allowed to complete the entire elementary, middle and high school track he or she was on?

"We're trying to give them some guide to the kind of things we want to hear about," said Janice Martin, a public relations consultant hired by the school district. "The School Board needs to know what people are saying. The level of detail and inter-related detail in developing this plan is tremendous."

Once the seven public meetings end on Feb. 17, district officials will assess what they have heard. School Board members will do the same, trying to develop their own definitions at a retreat at the end of the month. The plan may be adopted by May.

"We've got, what, six weeks at most to get it done?" Mueller said. "Time is running out."