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School Board holds off on revised charter plan

Board members don't want the plan to place tight restrictions on conversion schools.

School Board members were presented Tuesday with a revised plan to control the growth of charter schools as the district moves toward the end of court-ordered busing for desegregation.

Though the new plan included several changes board members requested, they still weren't satisfied. So they tabled the plan and will set a workshop to further discuss it. Then they will negotiate again with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The sticking point: Board members don't want dropout prevention programs or "conversion schools" to be tightly restricted. Conversion schools, public schools that convert to charter status, should not be limited, board members said. (There aren't any conversion schools in Pinellas; there are only three charters.)

The hand-wringing over charters began earlier this year as a federal judge contemplated the district's plan to end court-ordered busing for desegregation. Before he agrees to end court oversight of school decisions, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday told the School Board to find a way to control the size, location and number of charter schools.

Both sides came up with a plan for controlling charters, which was changed to answer questions from School Board members. One of those changes was to not require charters to conduct their admissions process through the district, which was originally proposed.

Though charter schools are operated by private groups, they get public money, which makes them public schools. All charters will have to meet the same race ratios required of other public schools through 2007.

The number of students allowed to attend charters would be limited in each part of the county by using a formula that compares projected student enrollment and the number of available school seats. By using projected instead of actual enrollment, which was originally proposed, more students would be able to attend charters.

Like others before it, Tuesday's charter debate was contentious. Superintendent Howard Hinesley, board attorney John Bowen and a couple of board members reminded the rest of the board that they should think about the big picture because constantly picking at every detail could end up aggravating the judge.

"Somewhere, we're going to have to make a decision that (being freed of court supervision) is what we want," Hinesley said. "This is frustrating as heck."

Other board members responded with their own frustrations. They said they don't want to feel rushed, and they're tired of being accused of jeopardizing the agreement to end court supervision.

"I resent being told that if I don't vote on this exact document I will be personally responsible for unitary falling apart," board member Nancy Bostock said. "Another month to do it right is not going to end the world."

Until the judge approves a way to handle charters, the Bay Village Center for Education application is on hold. Bay Village founders have requested that a mediator from the state Department of Education come to Pinellas to help resolve the issue of the school's size.

Bay Village founders want to open a 750-student middle school; the formula contemplated Tuesday would only allow about 530 students. Bowen plans to ask the judge how he should handle the request for mediation.