After four months of tense negotiations, lawyers for both sides in Pinellas County's 50-year-old school desegregation case are ready to call in a mediator.
The consensus comes about a month after lawyers for the plaintiffs, Enrique Escarraz and Roger Plata, suspended negotiations and demanded that Pinellas district leaders provide a more detailed plan to improve education for the 19,000 black students in Pinellas public schools.
Hiring a mediator would take the case another step closer to federal court and mark the third time in about 17 years that such a step was necessary to work through the thicket of issues in Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County.
This time, however, the suggestion came from Guy Burns, the lawyer in a separate state case, who recommended earlier this month that the district bring in a mediator, if only to ensure that a resolution be reached more quickly.
"We're still to some extent talking past each other," Burns said.
Burns represents Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, the plaintiffs in a state case filed in 2000 that alleges black students have been shortchanged by the school district. District leaders hope that case and the 1964 Bradley lawsuit can be mediated at the same time.
Lawyers on both sides are working to find a mediator, and plan to begin the process in early January if the School Board approves.
So far, most of the negotiations have focused on superintendent Mike Grego's 2013 "Bridging the Gap" plan, which has six broad areas to target for improvement. The plan has grown from its original five pages to more than 30, in part because of prodding from Escarraz and Plata in the federal case.
It includes five major areas in which the district wants to close gaps between black students and their classmates. Those include: graduation rates; proficiency on state exams; participation and performance in accelerated classes such as Advanced Placement; discipline; and eligibility for special education programs.
In the last two categories, black students are overrepresented. District leaders recently added a sixth goal, which is to hire more people of color.
At the last meeting, however, Plata suggested that the plan was "propaganda" to hand out at public meetings. He said he would prefer to see a document that could be presented in U.S. District Court.
"The problem is everything is about the district and from the district's point of view. It's not about the black children and (the lawsuits)," he said.
Dan Evans, the district's head of assessment and accountability, said the plan has both short- and long-term goals, and he believes that some aspects of it are more ambitious than efforts by other school districts.
"I know we have strategies in there that will actually affect the gap, which makes me sleep better at night," he said.
The latest version of the plan also includes some suggestions from the public, Evans said. Grego has held five public forums in the past few months to solicit feedback on the updated plan, collecting more than 1,000 suggestions and comments from teachers, school administrators, parents and other community members.
Among the widely varying recommendations: hire more black and Hispanic teachers; open an all-male school; offer students free laundry services. Participants also have suggested providing transportation to fundamental schools, opening year-round school and creating more diverse school settings.
Stacey Hughes, a St. Petersburg College professor and mother of two public school students, attended the fifth forum, held this month in the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center in St. Petersburg. She said black students should have access to rigorous, challenging programs. Hughes, 49 said she has seen students flounder in college-level courses.
"I get students who are not college ready," she said. "They need to graduate and be ready for the rigors of college."
Harrison Nash, who mentors at Melrose Elementary, said the forum was a chance to meet people he "probably wouldn't have met." He said the graduation rate for black students, which is about 65 percent, should be on par with white students. The rate for white students is 82 percent. The rate for black students has gone up about 9 percent over the past couple years.
"It's our job to hold feet to the fire," Nash said.
In June, Escarraz and Plata presented the school district with 30 allegations in the federal case. They say the system isn't treating black children fairly in discipline cases; has failed to hire and retain black teachers; hasn't given black children a safe place to go to school; failed to enroll more black children in magnets and other special programs; and hasn't spent enough money to help black children catch up in reading and math.
If mediation fails, there could be an appointment of a special overseer who could then make recommendations to U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.
Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.