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Parents to have say on choice

A task force is looking to Pinellas families for guidance as it helps map a future for the Pinellas school choice plan.

More than 33,000 parents and guardians will receive a survey in the mail this week asking about their preferences when choosing a school.

Among the key questions the survey seeks to answer is where Pinellas parents stand on the issue of racial integration. Several questions seek families' views on whether Pinellas should have a system that places students in schools close to home or one that transports some students to schools farther away in the interest of racial diversity.

The answer is important as Pinellas moves into a new era. For the first time in more than three decades, the district no longer will be required to assign students to schools based on race.

Pinellas students have been bused for desegregation since 1971, the result of a lawsuit filed against the district in 1964 by several black parents and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. A settlement in that case brought about a system of "controlled choice" in 2003 that limited the number of black students in any school to 42 percent.

Intended as a four-year bridge between the old and new systems, "controlled choice" ends after the current school year.

The choice system will continue. But the School Board, with help from a task force empaneled last year, is trying to decide how strong an effort it should make in the future to keep schools racially diverse.

The surveys should take five to 10 minutes to complete, district officials said Monday. Officials would like to get them back by Dec. 11 so the results can be tallied and used as the 47-member task force prepares a final recommendation for the School Board early next year.

Families were chosen randomly to participate. The surveys should arrive in the mail by Wednesday or Thursday.

District officials estimate the response will be good enough to guarantee a 95 percent "confidence interval."

That means if the survey were administered repeatedly to a different set of Pinellas families each time, the same result would occur 95 percent of the time.

The district is sending out four versions of the survey, each with 11 to 13 questions. Officials are seeking answers to more than 20 questions in all, but they divided them among different surveys to shorten the time people would spend completing them.