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Settlement near in Pinellas schools suit tied to Uhurus, black student achievement

After 10 years and a possibly $280,000 tab for taxpayers, a class-action lawsuit that charged Pinellas schools with depriving black students of a quality education may soon be settled out of court.

According to a tentative settlement unveiled late Monday, both sides in Crowley vs. Pinellas County School Board agree to settle on several conditions, including an "aspirational goal" for the board to help forge 500 new seats for black students in charter schools.

In key respects, the proposed settlement merges the Crowley case with Bradley vs. Pinellas County School Board, the 1964 desegregation case that continues to be the subject of mediation. If future concerns arise in Crowley, the plaintiffs will use the dispute resolution process established in Bradley before going back to Pinellas circuit court.

"Here we had two lawsuits that we're continually having to address," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen. "This wraps the two together."

Crowley was filed in 2000 on behalf of a St. Petersburg father, William Crowley, his then-7-year-old son and other plaintiffs. It was filed by Guy Burns, a powerhouse lawyer in securities litigation who also represented the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement — better known as the Uhurus — in its unsuccessful quest to open an all-black charter school.

The suit alleged the district was violating the rights of black children under the Florida constitution to an equal, high-quality education, and to special programs that could help them achieve the same success as white students.

"This settlement forms the basis for a new cooperative approach to the achievement gap," Burns said Tuesday. He credited Janssen for bringing "an attitudinal change … to this situation that hasn't been there for a long time."

The proposed settlement substitutes the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, or COQEBS, as the plaintiff in Crowley. The group is monitoring compliance in Bradley and under the settlement will perform the same function in Crowley.

School Board attorney Jim Robinson said recent progress in Bradley — including two legal agreements in the past year over black student achievement and discipline — led Crowley supporters to consider settling.

Under the agreement, the district will pay Burns $150,000, half of which will be put in a trust fund to support charter school applicants in the black community. Through May 18, the district had spent $133,128 on legal costs for Crowley.

The district also agrees to "give full and prompt consideration" to any future charter school applications that are "located in and designed to serve student needs in the black community."

Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility from many regulations in return for greater accountability. Some charter schools, most notably those in the national KIPP chain, have received rave reviews for success with low-income, minority kids.

"There's been a lot of discussion about charter schools in the black community (in Pinellas)," said COQEBS co-chair Watson Haynes. The settlement will accelerate them, he said.

"It's a statement of intent," added Burns. "I will take the school board at their word that they're committed to this."

The proposal must be okayed by the school board and a Pinellas Circuit Court judge. The board will review the agreement at a workshop Tuesday.

Having one case instead of two allows the district to "totally focus on what needs to happen," said board member Carol Cook. "I don't know that having both of them has been particularly productive."

Crowley gained steam in 2004 when a Pinellas circuit judge elevated it to class-action status, allowing it to represent more than 21,000 black students in Pinellas public schools. But in 2007 Crowley withdrew, citing personal reasons, and the case has been mostly off the radar since.

In 2008, a new group representing a coalition of community organizations, the Black Student Achievement Council of Pinellas, asked a judge to allow it to represent the plaintiffs, but the district objected and the issue remains unresolved. The coalition included COQEBS, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Fred G. Minnis Bar Association, the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association and the Uhurus.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Settlement near in Pinellas schools suit tied to Uhurus, black student achievement 08/10/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 10:24pm]
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