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Schools behind on buying property

Published Sep. 10, 2005

A lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has written a letter to the Pinellas School District, complaining that land-buying for new and renovated schools in St. Petersburg is behind a schedule approved by a federal judge.

In the letter, lawyer Enrique Escarraz said the school district should have informed him that property acquisition wasn't finished. Escarraz went on to say that in other instances, the district had failed to send him reports required in a court order.

Escarraz wrote that he wants to resolve the issue without going back to federal court, but left open that possibility. He was on vacation Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

"I am concerned about the fact that the schedule has been changed without any notification to Plaintiffs' counsel and without any discussion of reasons for doing so," Escarraz wrote.

School Board attorney John Bowen said he did not notify Escarraz that the district was behind schedule or offer reasons why because he did not know they were off schedule.

The district is building two new elementary schools and one middle school, plus renovating three existing elementary schools and one high school. The new schools are being built as part of a settlement between the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which sued the school district in 1964 for discriminating against African-American students.

Though the case is settled, a federal judge can be involved again if the school district does not fulfill its promises.

In all, the district needed to buy 189 properties to complete the construction projects; as of Tuesday, the district had control of 182. The schedule in the court order called for all of the properties to be bought by now.

In response, Bowen quoted the court order: "If unforeseen problems with site acquisition . . . occur, compliance with this Order will be assessed in accordance with the premise that best efforts to comply are the essence of the parties' agreement. Therefore, failure to strictly comply with the time lines shall not constitute conclusively evidence of a violation of this Order."

Bowen said the district's best efforts are obvious.

"I don't think it can be argued in any way shape or form that we haven't been applying our best efforts to get the job done," Bowen said. "We're on track to finish all the schools and have them open on time."

If Escarraz is not getting some of the information he wants, Bowen said all he needs to do is call.

Jim Madden, who is in charge of implementing plans in the settlement, said he did not send Escarraz some of the required reports because he simply did not have them on his calendar. He hopes that when Escarraz returns from vacation, he can get a complete list of required reports and deadlines so the miscommunication doesn't happen again.