A weekend interview with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster
Under former Mayor Rick Baker, the City of St. Petersburg took an active role in helping public schools, recognizing high-performing schools with Top Apple Awards and raising money for Doorways Scholarships. Mayor Bill Foster has continued those programs and added another: partnering with the Pinellas County School District and the Juvenile Welfare Board to bring a Harlem Children's Zone-like turnaround model to F-rated Fairmount Park Elementary. Foster spoke with reporter Ron Matus on April 22. The interview was edited for length.
Last summer when school grades came out, you had some pretty strong words. You said if we continue to have bad grades like some of these schools are getting, it’s slowly killing us as a city. So what’s your take on schools overall in St. Pete?
I think they’re improving. I think we have some momentum. I think we’ve engaged the community, and educated our community about the importance of good schools.
So they’re improving. Are you satisfied?
Oh, I’ll never be satified.
But are they improving fast enough for you?
Well, I mean, they didn’t break overnight. And the fix is going to take more than a year. But I like (he exhales) … it’s a hard day, it’s a tough day to ask me what I’m thinking now. Because I’m looking at some of the proposed cutbacks in this upcoming budget. And I’m thinking okay, they’re improving, and I kind of like the direction that we as partners, where we’re going. I meet with Julie Janssen and Jim Madden at least once a month, often times more. And I do feel like we’ve got a good partnership. They don’t listen to everything we say, but I wouldn’t have her job for anything. There’s no way in the world. But it scares me, because I think when I look at the graph, I think we’re moving in a positive direction. But cut $60 million out of the countywide budget for schools? Cut out some guidance counselors. Cut out some special training opportunities. Cut out arts and some of these things, these cultural things that really make a well-rounded student, athletics, and I just think that’s a formula for going backwards.
Is the place where the city should be involved? There’s some people who would say this isn’t your deal.
One hundred percent. Absolutely. Because we can’t allow decisions being made that have a huge impact on our city without us being at the table. And we can go in with humility and with grace. We want to be a partner. We don’t want to be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution. And we’re not there to tell them how to do their jobs. The way we approach the school board or the school system is always how can we partner to make you better. And I tell people, I don’t control the schools. Every time I walk in the front door of a school, I have to sign in and put on a visitor’s badge. They don’t care who you are. And that’s okay. I’m on the SAC committee at John Hopkins Middle School. I don’t have a child there.
Why did you do that?
Every school in the city is represented by somebody from the city. (City Administrator) Tish Elston is on the SAC at Blanton. (School resources administrator Lori Matway) is at Gibbs. I mentor a sophomore at Gibbs High School but I’m on the SAC at Hopkins. Because that’s how we get to know what’s happening at every single school. What are the needs of that school? And what can we do to help? I know that my responsibility surrounds the school. I know that I’m responsible for kids as they’re walking to school. I’m responsible for making sure the roads are safe. I go up to the gate and then my responsibility ends. But I want to know what’s happening on the other side of the gate because the decisions that are being made by the school board impact the quality of life and future success of this city.
Do you hear from your constituents a lot about schools? And what are you hearing?
I hear a lot. Especially when people are afraid a school might close. There’s usually a crisis when I hear. Or my kid’s on a waiting list. Usually there’s something they read that triggers the calls. That having been said, parents that I hear from are not part of the problem. If a parent takes the time to express to the mayor of the city an issue they’re having with the schools, it means that parent is engaged, that parent cares about their child’s education and they want to make a difference as well, and they’re using me as a conduit. They’re part of the solution. It’s the parents we don’t hear from that scare me the most. They’re not engaged. They don’t care.
We had a story in Sunday’s paper about black students in Pinellas, and how they are not only not doing as well as black students elsewhere, but that that gap is growing. What do you think of that? By and large we’re talking about black students in St. Pete.
Foster responds by referring to recent remarks by state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan: The particular speaker, I’m not going to mention any names … I was not one who was critical of what she said. I think the data that she was using in her analysis process was very sound. This is the reality. What are you going to do?
Did you know that black students here were not performing as well as black students elsewhere? Was that new news to you?
We knew it. We follow it. We study it. We hear from the community. … I like the schools close to home. We have to do – we, those in city government – still have the task of lifting up neighborhoods and making sure we have good quality housing inventory, which is very challenging with the foreclosure and housing disaster. That the streets are safe. That we have parks and recreation opportunities. All of those things that make up a neighborhood. Because to me it’s not, I’ll never get into the race argument. I’m not buying the race argument. I do buy the socio-economic argument. I think it is proven that it doesn’t matter if it’s an all-white school or an all-African American school, the fear and the formula for disaster is to have an all-poor school. I am convinced it is socio-economically driven.
How could it be that black students in St. Pete don’t do as well as black students in East Tampa or Liberty City or north Jacksonville?
That’s a question well beyond my expertise and pay grade. I will assume in my partnership with the school system, responsibility for improvement. And I want to see F and D schools become C, B and A schools, and do what we can as a partner to incentivize good teachers, good administrators to achieve that. I don’t have the formula. I just want to compare 2010 to 2009 and 2011 to 2010. I think if me as a mayor started comparing us to Okaloosa or Leon or Miami-Dade, it would just, you can get lost in the task and the data. I just want to see improvement. I’m only going to compare St. Pete schools to St. Pete schools the previous year. I’m only going to compare my schools to the same schools the previous year.
Is it not troubling to you that schools here may be making gains, but they’re not as robust as the gains in other places?
I’m not going to sit here in a position being a mayor for 15 months and start being hyper critical or sensitive of the school board. My comment with the D and F schools last year was we can’t afford to stay in the cellar. If we do, it will kill us. They’re killing us. And we need to see improvement. Again, that never happens overnight. The fact that we’re seeing improvement, hopefully we’ll see the data from 2011 is better than 2010 and 2012 will be better than 2011. That’s my goal. That’s my aspiration as the mayor of a city, that we do better.