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The element of surprise



In a neighborhood that lives as piecemeal as Parramore does, it's no wonder that news about the area arrives in bits and pieces, too.

Such was the case last week when the Orlando Sentinel reported that the blighted downtown community west of I-4 may be the chosen site for a new law school affiliated with Tallahassee-based Florida A&M University. The story didn't break from Orlando, even though city leaders have been discussing the school for more than a year. Rather, the story broke in the Florida Legislature, where state senators voted to finance the school and a bill in the House has been voted out of several committees.

Also last week, an informal group of Parramore residents were happy that plans to build an elementary charter school at Livingston and Parramore streets had been put on hold by the Orange County School Board. The group had complained that proponents of the charter school, which receives authorization from the school board but is privately managed and financed, were pushing it forward without much -- if any -- feedback from Parramore neighbors. The neighbors have been concerned that the school will be unsafe no matter where it is placed in Parramore. And they don't trust that the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, a nonprofit outreach organization that helped write the charter application, has been honest with the information it has given them.

In what was perhaps the most telling moment of the April 25 school board meeting, the audience applauded when board member Barbara Trovillion-Rushing said that the school board should ensure that future discussions about the charter school are held in public forums so that everyone receives the same information. "There's been enough rumors and innuendo," she said.

The law school, meanwhile, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, though Florida A&M University has been trying to regain its law school ever since the Legislature moved it to Florida State University in 1968.

With such a potentially big impact here, how come no one bothered during the decision-making process to say anything that might drum up local support? Because there was nothing to announce, says city Commissioner Daisy Lynum.

"It's in Tallahassee's hands until it gets to this level," says Lynum, who often must juggle a number of political interests because her district includes Parramore. "We definitely think it's important to tell people what's going on. But it has to go through the process first. We can't do anything at the local level until then."

Lynum says she can't always disclose projects in the planning stages because private interests demand a certain amount of discretion. Yet even when she does talk, most of her information is ignored by the media, she says.

"I try to keep people updated," she says. "But it wasn't time to deal with [the law school]. It was just a request. It was just an idea. It was just something I was working on."

The Florida Board of Regents is normally the authorizing agent for professional schools. In June the regents voted against requests for two law schools, one for A&M and one for Florida International University in Miami. The regents argued that administrators at existing state law schools can recruit more minority students by expanding current programs.

So the universities decided to combine their resources. They held a conference call several months ago that included state Sen. Mario Diaz Balart of Miami and Rep. Rudolph Bradley of St. Petersburg, representatives from FIU and FAMU, as well as other Hispanic and black legislators. "We decided to get together and push for two law schools," Diaz Balart says. Bradley and Diaz Balart wound up writing the bills authorizing the law schools to be built by 2003.

Of course, there's nothing to guarantee that a law school, which is expected to attract mostly minority students, will land in Parramore. Legislators don't even know how many students might attend. But if it does, it can only enhance the eight other projects being discussed for the neighborhood, which has a history of failed social programs. Students will have housing and living needs, which city leaders are hoping Parramore can accommodate. Lynum herself talks about attending the law school part-time. "I will enroll, in all probability," she says.

If there is a reluctance to talk openly about certain projects slated for Parramore, Lynum says it's because sinister people often work against efforts to clean up the area, where crack dealers and hookers roam just a few blocks from City Hall and touristy Church Street Station.

"The efforts of black people get wrecked by a destructive force," she says.

School board member Bill Boone appeared to agree with Lynum at last week's school board meeting. He suggested that most of the people who opposed the charter school had intentions that were not entirely honorable -- that they were more interested in the kinds of businesses they can open than in the welfare of Parramore children.

"The people opposed to this thing have a vested interest in it," Boone said. "These people have a vested property interest. They have a vested political interest. There's a lot of politics being played."

Boone went on to say that detractors of the school had "gotten to" board members willing to table the charter school application. ("Oh, come on, Bill," Trovillion-Rushing responded.)

Opponents of the school, in turn, distrust Lynum, Mayor Glenda Hood, several school board members and the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation.

It hasn't helped that the information passed between these parties has been incomplete or inaccurate.

Lynum and several other civic leaders have said repeatedly that more than 85 percent of the students who attend the charter school will come from Parramore. But the application submitted to the school board says children will be selected by lottery from anywhere in Orange County.

Yet even if the charter school board were able to reach Lynum's target population, it would have a problem. The county has been under a desegregation order since the 1960s. If the school took 85 percent of its children from Parramore, it would likely be 85 percent African-American and in violation of the court order.

Additionally, children from Parramore are needed at other schools to help the school district achieve a racial balance.

Several school board members argued that the application should be passed in spite of the disparity in racial numbers. But other board members were emphatic that they shouldn't create a school that they knew would violate the court order. "We don't have a school that is even 60 percent African-American," Trovillion-Rushing said.

Lynum is aware that this is the first charter school in Orange County that has faced strong opposition.

"I'm very uncomfortable that this circus has been brought to the school board," she says.

She thinks the charter will pass anyway, and the school will begin teaching this fall, even if it is in a temporary building. "I receive input from 35,000 people in my district," she says. "Everything they say is positive. Then there are the same seven people who are constantly raising issues. This is certainly not about the school."

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