O'Shea blames past school board for souring race relations; Lerner apologizes for past vote
Speaking at a St. Petersburg NAACP forum this week, Pinellas school board member and candidate Peggy O'Shea slammed a 12-year-old school board decision for creating mistrust with the black community that she said is only now being repaired.
Fellow board member and candidate Linda Lerner, who was on the board at the time, then apologized for voting in favor of the decision.
The board members were responding to a question about the relationship between the district and the NAACP. And they were referring to a historic 6-1 vote in April 1998 to seek an end to court supervision over the district's desegregation efforts and return to neighborhood schools.
The case in question, Bradley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, is still alive today, having spawned two legal agreements between the district and the plaintiffs in the past year.
Back then, then-Superintendent Howard Hinesley and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had just negotiated a plan to relax mandatory race ratios at schools in return for an intensified district effort to improve black student achievement. But a majority of board members decided, in a surprise move, that the plan didn't go far enough.
"That was never negotiated with the NAACP. It breached the trust. It was wrong, And it's taken a lot of years since then to get this thing back on track," said O'Shea, a longtime supporter of Gibbs High, where one of her daughters graduated in 2000. "That vote was rushed. The plan was done. It was not done properly. They didn't have the resources to back it. And it's taken way too long to bring this district forward, particularly south county."
O'Shea continued: "We worked hard with the parents at Gibbs, the teachers and the community to bring some positive changes. There's a brand new campus there today because the community, the people, the teachers, the parents coming together to work towards that for the kids. That's the kind of work we need to do together all the time, not after there's a problem."
By coincidence, Lerner was next in line among the candidates to address the question.
"I think this vote on unitary status, to say we wanted to get out from under the court order and have more of a say with our community over student assignment, I think it was the right vote to take," she said. "However, it was done, as Peggy said, without any notice to the community. And I can understand that it was wrong of me to vote for it at that meeting."
Lerner continued: "I think being a good elected official is once in a while you make a mistake. And own up to it. And say how you would do things differently."
Lerner noted that the only no vote on that 1998 decision came from Lee Benjamin, the father of school board candidate Terry Krassner.