LARGO — With a dramatic flourish, a longtime education activist unfurled a Confederate battle flag Tuesday in front of Pinellas County School Board members, saying they had failed black students in five neighborhood schools in south St. Petersburg.
Sami Leigh Scott told the board she was there to represent the 95 percent of students in the schools who failed reading or math last year.
"This is the flag the Pinellas County School District is offering us for our black children," she said as people in the board room gasped. "It's embarrassing and it is criminal."
Board Chairwoman Linda Lerner, responding to Scott, called it "very simplistic" to judge the five schools by the results of Florida's state standardized tests.
"Absolutely, the students at those five schools are among the very most struggling students in the state. I understand that. But just to clarify, many of them can read and do math," she said.
The school district has faced increased scrutiny in the wake of a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," that detailed how the school district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised new resources for elementary schools that became predominantly black and poor. Today, the county's most segregated schools — Melrose, Maximo, Lakewood, Campbell Park and Fairmount Park — are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in Florida. Dozens of schools with similar demographics do better academically.
The Times also detailed how violence and disruption in the schools soared after 2007. Last year, there were more violent incidents in the five schools than in all of the county's 17 high schools combined.
Superintendent Mike Grego, who was hired in 2012, has increased money and help in the schools in the last two years, including adding classroom aides, mental health counselors and training for teachers and administrators.
Scott said that the school system is "throwing money" at the schools now, but added that the problem goes deeper. "There is a culture within this institution that dictates these results," she said.
Scott was a member of a citizen task force that worked from 2005 to 2007 to help the board redesign the district's student assignment plan. She has been involved in local education groups and is a former president of the Pinellas School Advisory Council Association.
Other community members spoke out about the five schools after Tuesday's meeting.
Carol McNamee, who said she has worked in the schools, told board members she didn't come to chastise them.
"My aim is to convince you that blaming the victim doesn't work, and that's exactly what we've had going on," she said.
District officials have emphasized Grego's recent efforts and called on the community to focus on solutions. Board members reiterated that message Tuesday.
"The newspaper has the ink, but right now I have the microphone," Lerner said.
She acknowledged that some initiatives had been started and not sustained over the years, but said she was concerned that "there has been little emphasis" on the changes under Grego.
"Let's focus on what has happened the last two years, especially last year and this year. The past is the past," Lerner said.
Board members Carol Cook and Ken Peluso said they agreed with Lerner's comments.
Board member Terry Krassner said: "We really want our children and our teachers and our families to know that we want the best for everybody — everybody — and we're not going to stop until we're there."
The Times stories have received national attention, with calls from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., for a federal review of how the school district has spent federal dollars intended to help poor children.
Black leaders delivered a letter to Grego last week in which they said the district isn't doing enough to help struggling black students. Guy Burns, an attorney for the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, told the Times Monday that the group would be asking for "court-imposed remedies."
If the group successfully clears some legal hurdles, the move could resurrect Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, a class-action lawsuit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in 2000.
In a letter released Tuesday, Enrique Escarraz, the lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in a 50-year-old federal desegregation suit that targeted Pinellas County schools, called on district leaders to do more to aid struggling black students and to make predominantly black schools safer, including installing panic buttons in classrooms.
"There is a growing frustration in the black community with the state of the quality of education for black students," he wrote to the School Board attorney. "The frustration in the black community is that the time for equal education for black students should have arrived quite some time ago, and it has not. Another generation of black children not receiving an equal education is not acceptable."
Escarraz wrote that he would oppose any efforts to install magnet programs in any of the five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Grego told the School Board on Aug. 11 that he planned to turn Fairmount Park, Lakewood and Maximo into magnet schools. Melrose already has a magnet program.
Escarraz also asked the district to be more thorough in reporting student discipline and teacher hiring data in the meetings required by a settlement in the case of Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. the Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County — the federal suit filed in 1964 that led to the desegregation of the county's schools.
Escarraz stopped short of saying he intended to trigger a provision in the settlement agreement that would lead to mediation, but he hinted at his ability to do so if the district didn't begin addressing issues urgently.
He also criticized the Times series in his letter. He called it "sensationalist," going on to demand that specific problems raised by the series be fixed immediately.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.