U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called Tuesday for a federal review of the "crisis" in south St. Petersburg's neighborhood schools, saying students aren't receiving an "equal opportunity to a high quality education."
Castor, the Tampa Democrat whose district includes part of southern Pinellas County, said Tuesday in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education that a Tampa Bay Times investigation raised serious questions about the use of federal dollars for poor children and the overall quality of education students are receiving in five predominantly black elementary schools.
"In America, 'separate but equal' in our public schools was deemed unconstitutional over 60 years ago. Our federal and state laws — and our values — require that all children, no matter what neighborhood in which they live, receive an equal opportunity to a high quality education. That is not happening for the students in south St. Petersburg," she wrote.
Castor said Pinellas County public schools "need greater oversight and expertise."
Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, who visited the Times editorial board Tuesday, said that he had "glanced" at the letter, but he declined to comment until he had spoken to Castor.
"Congresswoman Castor is a great supporter of our school district and I look forward to talking to her," he said, adding that he thought Castor had the school district's best interests in mind.
Castor said Tuesday that she believes her request "should gain traction" because U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has drawn attention to the need for equal resources in all schools.
The Times investigation, "Failure Factories," detailed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007, then failed to follow through with promised new resources for elementary schools that became mostly black and poor. Today, the county's most segregated schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementaries — are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in the state.
In 2014, 95 percent of black students tested at the schools failed reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.
The problem isn't explained by poverty alone. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools in Florida are as poor or poorer than Pinellas' worst schools. All but seven outperformed the schools academically.
In her letter, Castor said that one of the "most troubling questions" raised by the Times was whether the school district had shortchanged the five schools financially. She said she was concerned that district officials used federal dollars to replace state and local money. Federal dollars for poor children are intended to provide extra resources to assist children who typically come to school less prepared than their wealthier peers.
The Times found that after the 2007 vote, four of the five elementary schools were funded erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools. In 2009, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park. Only Melrose consistently received more funding than other schools.
Board members had promised that the schools in south St. Petersburg would get more money than other schools, even if it meant taking money from other elementaries.
A district spokeswoman said that Pinellas County Schools undergoes annual checks to make sure that federal dollars are used as required by law. Those reports analyze student-to-staff ratios without federal dollars, the purchase of materials and programs.
Grego told the Times editorial board Tuesday that he had a "tremendous sense of urgency" about the five schools. He told the School Board last week that he planned to create new magnet programs at three of the five schools — Fairmount Park, Maximo and Lakewood — and would possibly reexamine the struggling journalism magnet at Melrose. Under his proposal, Campbell Park would remain a neighborhood school.
The new magnets wouldn't open for at least three years. But Grego said that he's already seeing some improvements come from the addition of classroom aides, mental health counselors and additional training for teachers — all started during the 2014-15 school year.
At Campbell Park, for instance, Grego said that every student in kindergarten last year is going into first grade performing at grade level. He also said there have been double-digit improvements on a district-administered standardized test given to first- and second-graders.
"You'll say not in every single school, but predominantly it's working," he said.
In her letter, Castor praised Grego's plan to add magnets as an "important restructuring." She said she believed Grego was "dedicated to the students of Pinellas County and school improvement."
But she questioned whether the five elementary schools had "comparable resources" as required by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act when teacher turnover had been high for years and teachers in the schools, on average, have less experience than in other elementary schools in the county.
"This community deserves so much more," she wrote.
Staff writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Fitz_ly.