Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Friction mars talks in legal battle over Pinellas black students

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.

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 cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.

If you go

The Pinellas County School District will hold community meetings on how to close the achievement gap between white and black students. The first four meetings, which will start at

6 p.m. and end at 7:30, are:

Tuesday: Largo High

Oct. 18: Boca Ciega High

Nov. 1: Gibbs High

Nov. 15: Tarpon Springs High

Source: Pinellas County School District

Friction mars talks in legal battle over Pinellas black students 10/03/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2016 1:01am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Protectors of Confederate statue readied for a battle that never materialized

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — Big Dixie flags were waving. County employees had erected a barrier around the Confederate soldier statue at Main and Broad streets. Roads and parking areas were blocked off. Uniformed local officers and federal law enforcement patrolled.

    Police tape and barricades surround the Confederate statue in Brooksville.
  2. Manhattan Casino choice causes political headache for Kriseman

    Growth

    ST. PETERSBURG — Days before the mayoral primary, Mayor Rick Kriseman's decision to let a Floribbean restaurant open in Midtown's historic Manhattan Casino has caused political angst within the voting bloc he can least afford to lose: the black community.

    Last week Mayor Rick Kriseman chose a Floribbean restaurant concept to fill Midtown's historic Manhattan Casino. But that decision, made days before next week's mayoral primary, has turned into a political headache for the mayor. Many residents want to see the building's next tenant better reflect its cultural significance in the black community. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
  3. FSU-Bama 'almost feels like a national championship game Week 1'

    Blogs

    The buzz is continuing to build for next Saturday's blockbuster showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State.

  4. Plan a fall vacation at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens when crowds are light

    Florida

    Now that the busy summer vacation season is ending, Floridians can come out to play.

    Maria Reyna, 8, of Corpus Cristi, TX. eats chicken at the Lotus Blossom Cafe at the Chinese pavilion at Epcot in Orlando, Fla. on Thursday, August 17, 2017.  Epcot is celebrating it's 35th year as the upcoming Food and Wine Festival kicks off once again.
  5. USF spends $1.5 million to address growing demand for student counseling

    College

    TAMPA — As Florida's universities stare down a mental health epidemic, the University of South Florida has crafted a plan it hopes will reach all students, from the one in crisis to the one who doesn't know he could use some help.

    A student crosses the University of South Florida campus in Tampa, where visits to the school's crisis center more than doubled last year, part of a spike in demand that has affected colleges across the country. The university is addressing the issue this year with $1.5 million for more "wellness coaches," counselors, online programs and staff training. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]