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Race becomes issue in Gainesville school dispute
Ballowe's supporters cite test score gains by minority students
Gainesville school board members David Syfan, left, and Sammy Smith talk about the 2009 projected budget during Thursday evening's community meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Men's faces beaded with sweat as they loosened their ties to escape the humidity lingering after the summer afternoon's storm. And one mother's face carried warnings for her children squirming in the church pews.

But roughly all 50 faces - mostly black, a few white and one Latino - turned their gazes to four of the five Gainesville school board members seated Thursday in the pulpit of Bethel A.M.E. Church on Mill Street.
They wanted answers.

With a now defunct Monday deadline looming for the Gainesville city school board to finalize the 2009 budget, taxpayers demanded answers from board members trying to chip away at the school system's estimated $6.5 million deficit.

A mediator fielded written questions from the audience who inquired about all aspects of the school board's current fiscal dilemma, from the proposed 14 percent property tax increase to how exactly Steven Ballowe, superintendent of Gainesville city schools, would be evaluated on his upcoming job performance.

After the board responded to some questions and admitted they were stumped on others, parents, grandparents and residents shuffled out of the Southside neighborhood church.

Although cloudiness still surrounded some aspects of the school system's recently discovered fiscal irresponsibility, one thing was clear: Some people want Ballowe to be fired, while others staunchly support the superintendent.

Many attending Tuesday's school board meeting raised their voices when Southside resident James Brooks threw the word "racism" out to the full board room. Brooks said he wanted the community to consider how Ballowe has helped to improve minority students' test scores before they hung him out to dry.

Renee Gerrell was among the small crowd of white parents whose jaws dropped at the board meeting.
"The whole thing just blows my mind," she said. "The only color that is an issue here is green."

Gerrell, a 1987 graduate of Gainesville High School, said she has trouble understanding how anyone of any race could support a superintendent who let millions in taxpayer dollars slip through his fingers.

"They all say ‘Yes, hold him accountable, but give him a chance to fix his mistakes,'" Gerrell said. "I think (Ballowe) should be fired ... It's all about the deficit. It's about nothing else. It's about me having to come up with an extra $400 or so for taxes at Christmas when I have four children to buy presents for."

Brooks, a graduate of Fair Street School, said after the meeting Thursday he believes some people in Gainesville don't like Ballowe because he has helped closed the achievement gap between races.

"The recipients of his real good will have been the minorities, the Latinos and the blacks," Brooks said. "They have been positively affected by the program that he set up. Some people would rather that he not do that."

But some critics of Ballowe credit the No Child Left Behind Act, which the federal government implemented in 2002, with the academic success of minorities. Yet Ballowe supporters call him a "visionary" because he developed the standards-based Gainesville Model in 2001 when he was first employed by the school system.

According to 2007 statistics provided by the state Department of Education, the Gainesville school system is one in which minorities make up the majority of students. The system has more than 5,500 students, 75 percent of whom are classified as economically disadvantaged.

In addition, 9 percent of all city students have a disability and 29 percent speak English as a second language.

Graduation rates at Gainesville High School have increased from about 72 percent in 2005 to about 81 percent in 2007. The state average graduation rate for 2007 was 68 percent for Title I school systems like Gainesville, according to the state Department of Education Web site.

Kim Austin, a member of the Southside community, has two children in Gainesville schools. "We look at it from the standpoint that when Ballowe came here, he saw every child can be the same," Austin said. "Black men are graduating; it's a big change.

"Before that, they used to target kids ... with levels, and most of our children weren't at the levels white children were. African-American children are (passing standardized tests) at 90 to 95 percent right now, and that's wonderful compared to where they used to be."

Austin said she supports Ballowe because she doesn't want to worry about what's going to happen if he leaves Gainesville city schools. "We're on the right path now, we just don't want to go back," she said. "Some people can't understand why we like him so much. I like him personally because he's somebody that I can talk to. He is someone that if I have a problem, I can call, and I know that he will give me a call back and answer my question."

Ballowe said that in order to satisfy the objective on his school board evaluation requiring him to reach out to the minority and low socioeconomic groups of the community, he has met with numerous local church leaders over the past several years.

"I'm passionate about equality," he said. "The church is the most prevalent voice in the African-American community, and it's gaining much more solidarity in the Hispanic community, so it's really important that I utilize that communication channel. I challenge all ministers - black, white and Hispanic -- to come to the meetings with me."

Ballowe said this summer he plans to focus on Latino community churches. He said more than 50 percent of Gainesville students are Latino.

Frank Harben, a former member of the Gainesville City Board of Education, said the Gainesville school system has done a wonderful job addressing the No Child Left Behind Act.

"One thing No Child Left Behind did, it made us be able to talk about race, and it was uncomfortable for people," Harben said. "I can understand the Newtown Florists and some of the African-American community being concerned with losing the leader of the school system who has done so much to help minority kids get ahead.

"I mean, why did President Bush mention Gainesville Elementary? ... It was because we were getting done what wasn't supposed to be done, which is to get where kids are all doing well."

Harben said he doesn't think members of the community demanding Ballowe's termination are racist.
"But what they may not understand is that what they're proposing may possibly have racial implications in that if a new leader came in without the same conviction and passion for all kids, you might would see a backing up in progress that we had made with minority kids and (impoverished) kids," he said.

Gerrell, who was one of few whites at Thursday's question and answer session, said she left the meeting with a better understanding of the black community's support for Ballowe.

Willie Mitchell, chairman of the Gainesville city school board, said the five members of the board have some big decisions to make.

He said he sees subtle racial undertones in the squaring off of Ballowe supporters and critics, but he also understands the deficit problem and consequent tax increase isn't winning the superintendent any new fans.

"There's people who are saying ‘Don't raise my taxes' and that's a legitimate cry," he said. "Some of those people couldn't care less if Ballowe is here or not.

"If people say the system won't heal with him here, they've lost their focus. The focus should be on the children. I don't see anything that he's done to merit being booted from the system. I really don't. I know I'll take a lot of flak for that, but that's part of the game."

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