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Manatee County School board residence areas unlikely to change

MANATEE -- Despite the persistent pleas of a community activist for action before Jan. 1, the school district is likely to go another two years with residence area labels that don’t match county commission district numbers.

School Board Chairman Harry Kinnan said Wednesday he is “very satisfied” with the advice of School Board Attorney John Bowen that state statutes make it impossible for the district to rectify the conflicting number labels until 2013. Kinnan said the earliest the topic will come up for discussion is in mid-January, during the school board’s first meeting of the year.

“People have to have their own interpretations,” Kinnan said. “But we have to adhere to what our people tell us is the Florida statute on this.

“This isn’t something that was checked in a vacuum. I spent a day and a half with our legal counsel on this.”

Activist Dave Miner, who has raised the issue to both school district officials and the county commission, remains convinced that the legal interpretation accepted by Kinnan from Bowen is too cautious. Miner contends Kinnan is depriving his fellow board members of a chance to act on the labeling discrepancy by refusing to call a special meeting before the end of the year.

“There’s nothing in this for me other than the satisfaction of making things better,” Miner said. “(Kinnan) says his legal team has told him he can’t renumber the districts. But there isn’t anything that says he can’t call a meeting to discuss it.”

The alignment of county commission districts with school board residence areas was actually supposed to be concluded back in November, during a joint workshop between the school board and county commission at which both bodies agreed they wanted to align not only the boundaries and populations of their districts, but also the numbers used to label them.

The two bodies succeeded in aligning their candidate boundaries and populations: the same geographic lines separate all five commission districts and all five school board residence areas, and each district/area has 62,000 to 67,000 residents.

But none of the number labels match: for example, the county’s District One is the school board’s Residence Area Four. The county’s District Four is the school board’s Residence Area Five.

Miner raised the issue to school district officials after the board’s Dec. 12 meeting, at which the new residence area boundaries were officially approved. After being told there was nothing the board could do about the discrepancies this year, Miner raised the question to the county commission, prompting the commission to ask the school board to change its numbering system.

Bowen has repeatedly contended that the numbers cannot be changed because state law, which allows redistricting efforts only during odd-numbered years, in an effort to head off arbitrary redistricting. Furthermore, Bowen said, school boards -- unlike county commissions -- are governed by a set of rules called the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires a public hearing with 21 days notice to make such a change.

Bowen also emphasized that the labels of the residence areas are not as important as the labels of county commission districts: school board candidate boundaries dictate only where candidates have to live, while county commission districts also dictate which candidate voters can vote for, he said. Bowen said he arrived at his recommendation after consulting with Hillsborough County’s school board attorney.

But Miner and county commissioners have said the alignments are important to eliminate confusion among voters. Commission Chairman Carol Whitmore signed a letter to the school board asserting that opinion.

A deputy chief county attorney will draft another letter to Bowen asking for more information on his opinion. School board members, who have repeatedly been split in their views on Bowen’s advice, are again divided on the redistricting numbers, too. Julie Aranibar questions why Bowen did not address the numbering situation earlier, while Karen Carpenter said the situation could have been avoided “if the attorney had done his job.”

Bob Gause said Bowen was never pinpointed as the person solely responsible for following up on the number labels; in fact, Gause said, the November workshop included a discussion about how unlikely it would be to resolve the numbering issue before the end of the year. He and Barbara Harvey agree with Kinnan that Bowen’s advice should be followed and that the situation does not warrant the controversy it has generated.

“We’re happy to make adjustments in a timely fashion in the future,” Kinnan said. “But what we already did this year is a giant step in the right direction. The numbers (in the districts and residence areas) have never been aligned for 50 years, until now. We accomplished what we intended to accomplish.”

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.