Friction mars talks in legal battle over Pinellas black students

Lawyers in the case over the treatment of Pinellas children say a mediator could be next.
Roger Plata, co-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, listens during a March meeting of an education advocacy group. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Roger Plata, co-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, listens during a March meeting of an education advocacy group.DIRK SHADD | Times
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For the second time since settling 16 years ago, the plaintiffs in a 50-year-old desegregation case have forced the Pinellas County School District back to the table to try to ensure that black children get an equal education.

The meetings, which started in August, have been tense, even hostile.

So much so that the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Enrique Escarraz and Roger Plata, said Friday that they were considering going to the next step in the legal process and calling in a mediator.

After six meetings, the two sides can't even agree about how to characterize the meetings. Superintendent Mike Grego told the School Board last week that the talks have been "very successful." Escarraz and Plata's response to that, when asked by a reporter, was laughter.

"It's not successful at all," Escarraz said.

The two lawyers have said they are frustrated by how long it takes to get data from the school district. They also have complained that the data, when given, is presented to show the district in the best possible light.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett has complained the school district doesn't get credit for any improvements it has made. Plata has accused Corbett of being disingenuous and, on at least one occasion, of mocking him.

Consider this seemingly simple question: Has the achievement gap in reading scores between black and white students improved?

Corbett said yes at a meeting in mid September. The gap, which is about 30 points, closed by 7 percentage points in three years.

Not so fast, countered Escarraz and Plata, both lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Black students' reading scores stayed flat, but white students' scores dropped.

"We don't want you to get the gap to go away by pulling the white kids down," Escarraz said.

Plata added: "And then claiming success."

District officials also charted a three-year trend that compared scores from the old FCAT with results from the new Florida Standards Assessment. The state has cautioned districts not to do that.

Later in the same meeting, Plata said he was "really fed up with this nonsense" and Escarraz said, "It feels like we're not getting anywhere."

The two announced in March that they planned to trigger the so-called alternative dispute resolution provision in the settlement agreement for the 1964 federal desegregation case, Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County. The process calls for informal negotiations between the district and the plaintiffs, followed by formal mediation and, if necessary, the appointment of a special overseer who can make recommendations to U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.

In June, the lawyers presented the school district with 30 allegations in the case.

They allege 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.

Plata and Escarraz first forced the district back into negotiations in 2006. Despite a half-dozen meetings in this round, the sides haven't made much progress.

For a month, Escarraz and Plata have asked for the experience levels of teachers working this year in five predominantly black elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Since a vote by the School Board in 2007 to abandon integration efforts, those schools have had a much higher number of inexperienced teachers than other schools.

District officials have said the number of new teachers has decreased this year. Grego said in late August that only 26 teachers in the schools had no prior teaching experience.

But information provided by Corbett on Friday showed 37 teachers with zero years of experience — more than last year.

District officials also gave the plaintiffs a draft about a week ago, showing a tentative model for how the achievement gap could close in about 10 years. Plata called it a "start." But then officials presented it at a School Board meeting last week, and announced that they would hold four public meetings to get community input. The first one is Tuesday.

In a flurry of emails last week, Plata and Escarraz objected.

Escarraz said the timeline to close the gap was too slow. Plata said the community meetings were scheduled without consultation with community groups, and at inconvenient times and places for working parents.

At Friday's meeting, Plata said they were "stunned" by the public announcement.

"There has been NO agreement with the district on ANYTHING," he wrote.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.

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