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Our Views: The Gainesville school divide
Ballowe had to go, but differing views along racial lines offer reason to reflect
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As difficult as the decision surely was, the Gainesville Board of Education's vote Thursday to fire Superintendent Steven Ballowe was the right one.

Too much water under the bridge, as they say. For the system to move forward, for the board to regain the trust of the public, Ballowe had to go.

As if the $6.5 million deficit weren't bad enough, Ballowe's memo in May alleging that board members had violated his civil rights likely fractured the board-superintendent relationship to the point of no return.

Now the system must reach some sort of termination buyout agreement with Ballowe and begin the arduous task of finding his replacement. It won't be easy, and the obstacles the new superintendent will face will be significant.

But beyond Ballowe's departure is something the city must address on a greater scale. We learned something about ourselves that we perhaps didn't want to admit. Despite the best efforts of so many to break from the prejudices of the past, we remain a community divided by race.

Like many Southern towns once segregated in every way, Gainesville residents still have different "sides of the track" so to speak, including neighborhoods, churches and other community gathering spots split between black and white.

But while we see progress on racial unification in so many areas, we occasionally come across events that remind us the color line is still there, even if we choose to ignore it. You can add our city school board battle to that list. The differing views on Ballowe, the board and the deficit couldn't be more stark.

Since our story last Sunday that laid out how the dispute is split along racial lines, we heard from several readers who questioned why we were making a black-white issue of it. Of course, we didn't make it that way; it evolved in that direction on its own.

Consider that the vote to oust Ballowe was 3-2, with the three white members of the board voting to fire him and the two black members voting to keep him. Is that just a coincidence? Maybe.

But note this quote from board member Willie Mitchell, one of the two voters in Ballowe's favor: "Today is probably the first time in my life that I know how my mom felt when she heard the Gainesville City Board of Education was going to close Butler High," he said, referring to the city's black school from the segregation era.

No one made this a racial issue, but it is. To deny it is to continue to sweep such a discussion under the rug, where it will block our path and never go away.

There's no question Ballowe had a positive influence on the success of Gainesville's schools. He took over a good school system and made it better by embracing the difficult No Child Left Behind national standards rather than fighting them. Graduation rates and test scores for all, particularly minority students, have been on a steady incline during his tenure. That's why President Bush, education experts and this newspaper have sung his praises for years.

Then came news that the system was deep in a budget mess, some $6.5 million or more in the hole over the last two years. The cause seems to be a combination of poor bookkeeping, irresponsible spending and weak oversight.

As Ballowe himself has said, he's not an accountant. He is the idea guy, the public face of the school system, the innovator. He never seemed interested in dirtying his hands with the financial details, instead leaving that up to his budget directors.

Whatever the cause for the budget problem, the reaction from the communities (plural intended) has been very different.

On the one side, many in the majority white community became outraged that the system could spend itself that deep into a hole, then come back and ask for higher property taxes to plug the gap.

We've heard such comments at board meetings and seen them reflected on this page: "We have bills to pay, too. We have to manage our finances; why can't the schools?" It doesn't help that the economy has been stagnant, that many folks have lost jobs and homes and that prices for basic staples like groceries and gas have gone sky-high.

Then there is the other side of the argument, one we've heard from many in the black community. They say blame for the budget mess should not be laid solely at Ballowe's feet, and that he should have been given a chance to fix it rather than shown the door.

Ballowe had been accessible and responsive to black students and their parents, to his credit, and many of them returned that support in kind when he came under fire. In their eyes, the performance of the schools and success of the students far outweighs the system's financial problems. "You can't put a price tag on education" is their common mantra.

Two very different points of view on the same subject. From our perspective, we can see the argument on both sides and how those conclusions were drawn.

But we also believe that the fiscal irresponsibility of the school system must be addressed, and it's probably best that it be done with fresh leadership. To this point, Ballowe and his budget directors have taken the lion's share of the criticism for the deficit. Now the focus turns to the school board, and will in particular when members come up for re-election.

For board members to survive the scandal, they must pick a new superintendent who can earn the support of all sides of our community by keeping school standards high while balancing the budget.

This person will have to work just as hard as Ballowe to win the support of whites, blacks and Latinos.
The board made the right decision in firing Ballowe. It will need to make several more before this sad chapter is finally closed.

Yet when the dust settles, as it inevitably will, we still will be left with a city that remains divided in its views on many subjects by race, perhaps much more so than many suspected.