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Fears of resegregation voiced

(ran South, East editions)

The phase-out of racial quotas as part of the Pinellas school choice plan is a "scary" prospect that in other districts has brought a return to segregation, School Board member Mary Russell told a community group Monday night.

Choice was one of the dominant issues at the meeting, sponsored by the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee, known as AAVREC. The other major concern voiced by several who attended was the selection of a successor for Pinellas schools superintendent Howard Hinesley, who is scheduled to retire from the district in November 2004.

The School Board is soliciting public opinion on the replacement process, and a public hearing is set for May 13 at the school administration building in Largo. But several School Board members, including Russell, have said they favor appointing Hinesley's top deputy, John A. Stewart, to guide the district through the choice plan's four-year phase-in period.

That idea did not sit well with several AAVREC members, including chairman Vyrle Davis, who later called the selection of Hinesley's replacement "the most important thing happening to black folks in this community."

Davis and others said the School Board should launch a national search, and they voiced a hope that a black person would be among the candidates.

Russell said of Stewart, "He has proven himself in many areas in the past." She added: "In my opinion, a national search for somebody to do what he can do for us may not be what we want."

Regarding the choice plan, two black parents voiced strong concerns about what will happen after 2007, when the racial quotas that keep Pinellas schools integrated are lifted. Some worried that the quality of materials and teachers will decline in what many expect to be predominantly black schools.

"What is in place to keep us from going back?" asked Chrisshun Cox, recalling the days before court-ordered busing, when black students were placed in inferior schools.

Pamela Lovett asked Russell: "Where are we going with this? It does not benefit the black community at all." Lovett said she was not impressed with the new schools the district built in St. Petersburg's black community as part of the choice plan.

"I think we see where we're headed and it's scary," Russell told the group, a gathering of about 50 people, white and black.

Said Lovett: "I don't think the School Board is scared enough at all."

In response to Cox, Russell said she has always been concerned about a tendency to let quality slide at magnet schools when money dries up. "When the newest and best is gone," she said, "people's interest curtails."

In Charlotte, N.C., which already has a choice plan, "the end result was resegregation," Russell said.

For now in Pinellas, she said, the safeguards against inequality in schools are the racial ratios.

"We're going to have to take this one step at a time, and those are going to be very deliberate steps," Russell said.

She added: "I'd like to tell you I have all the answers and I'm going to make it better, but I don't have all the answers."

The next AAVREC meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 24 at the James Weldon Johnson Library, 1154 18th Ave. S. School Board member Mary Brown will be the featured speaker.

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