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Lawyers: Tweak school plan

Attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund like the plan, but want some items changed.

The School Board has taken its "choice plan" on the road, seeking input all over the county from small groups of Realtors, school activists, business owners, parents and ministers.

So far, board members and Superintendent Howard Hinesley have not heard from the group which could return the district to federal court: the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In an interview Tuesday, Legal Defense Fund attorneys Enrique Escarraz and Roger Plata said they think the district's proposal to let parents choose their children's schools has potential. But, they said, it needs some tweaking.

"If they develop a system that encourages segregation, we feel like we would have a way of challenging that in court," said Escarraz, who also appeared before the Times editorial board Wednesday morning with representatives from the NAACP and the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee.

Here is what Escarraz and Plata would like to see done:

+ They want the district to eliminate a provision _ called "extended grandfathering" _ that would allow all students enrolled in the 2002-03 school year to complete elementary, middle and high school within their current attendance zones. To be eligible for this privilege, a student has to live at the same address through all three levels of school.

They say that policy would not benefit black children, who have borne the brunt of court-ordered busing for desegregation and do not have clear school tracks. The requirement to stay at the same house also benefits white students more than black students, they said, because black families are often more mobile.

They would support what is called "traditional grandfathering" _ allowing students to complete the school they are attending when the new system starts in fall 2003.

"Extended grandfathering is something that has been designed to provide a comfort level for white parents, particularly mid- and north-county white parents," Escarraz said. "Black folks are a minority, a small minority, and the protection of their rights and their interests is at best ignored."

+ They want the School Board to divide the district into three areas for elementary and middle schools and one area for high school. Though Superintendent Howard Hinesley has endorsed that configuration, he has also floated a proposal to divide the county into four areas each for elementary and middle and two areas for high school. His reason: more areas could mean cheaper transportation costs.

But Escarraz said the three-area plan for lower levels makes sense because it doesn't divide St. Petersburg. Under the four-area plan, St. Petersburg would be divided in two. That could mean black students might still have to attend schools as far north as Seminole.

+ They want a specific formula for deciding how many students can fit into a school and how many portables the campus can accommodate. They hope that a standard formula will prevent what happens now _ if more families move close to "popular schools," the district just adds more and more portables.

+ They want the School Board to adopt guidelines for the creation of specialized "attractor" programs that are supposed to lure students from afar. They want assurances that school leaders and parents will have power to choose attractors that answer community needs, rather that being forced to follow district-level directives.

The change from traditional zoning to a system of choice is part of a recently approved settlement between the Legal Defense Fund and the School Board to end the 1964 court case that led to court-ordered busing and race ratios in schools.

Certain students will have preference to get into their top choice school, such as those with older siblings already enrolled or those who live close to a campus. Black student enrollment at each school will be capped at 42 percent through 2007, after which the ratios can disappear.

The Legal Defense Fund will formally present its concerns on Oct. 4 at a workshop with the School Board. On Oct. 17, Hinesley and Escarraz will present the choice proposals they recommend, which are likely to be different.

A vote is set for Oct. 24.

Overall, Escarraz and Plata say they support the proposal as the best hope of maintaining integrated, improved schools when ratios end. For instance, a student will get preference to attend his top choice school if he would increase the diversity at that school.

Under the proposal, each school will be encouraged to match its racial makeup to that of the attendance area. Schools that don't come close to that ratio will be required to survey community residents and make changes to encourage more parents to choose the school.

Those improvement efforts _ also required if a school isn't often chosen _ will be monitored by a district committee and administrators.

"Choice can be a good thing," Escarraz said. "It has great potential for improving education of children in the county, especially black children."