ST. PETERSBURG — Glenton Gilzean wasn't sure what to expect Thursday as he met with a roster of leaders from St. Petersburg's black community.
Several had made it clear they were not thrilled Gov. Rick Scott had picked Gilzean to fill the seat left open on the Pinellas County School Board when Lew Williams, the only African-American member, died.
Gilzean listened, took notes and sipped a McDonald's coffee as he heard what they expected of him.
"This meeting was intended to be a serious briefing about the issues that, Glenton, you're going to have to champion," meeting organizer Gypsy Gallardo said. Among those issues are two desegregation cases involving Pinellas County Schools and improving black student performance.
The group also gave Gilzean homework: Learn about the history of black student achievement in Pinellas.
"Adelle Jemison. You need to know who she is," Gallardo said, rattling off the names of retired black educators who helped push the case of racial equity. "You need to know who Vyrle Davis is. You need to know who some of the elders are who have been carrying this torch. And you also need to know where we are on this journey."
Jemison, who died in 2007 at the age of 77, was a founding member of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, the group monitoring the two desegregation cases. Davis was a former St. Petersburg High principal.
Gallardo also offered Gilzean a Rolodex of community contacts and urged him to hold a town meeting and to meet with former School Board member Mary Brown, the first African-American elected to the board.
An advocate of school vouchers, Gilzean came to the seat from Educate Today, an organization he founded while in graduate school at the University of South Florida. It offers after-school tutoring and assists families seeking educational choices for their children including tax credit scholarships. Gilzean also worked as a state Department of Education staffer.
Other voucher supporters who attended Thursday's meeting: Doug Tuthill and Michael Benjamin, both from Step Up for Students, the group that administers the tax-credit scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools.
Sarasota Housing Authority chairman John Colon sat near Gilzean during the meeting and afterward identified himself as a Gov. Scott representative. Colon said he was responsible for getting Scott to appoint Gilzean.
That decision in January dismayed many local black leaders, who only knew Gilzean as someone with Republican ties who had moved to St. Petersburg from Tampa in November. But on Thursday, Gilzean got a boost from former St. Petersburg police chief Goliath Davis.
He told the group gathered that he had already met with Gilzean and was impressed, calling his "knowledge of school-related issues more than sufficient."
Gilzean represents District 7, an area that encompasses the southernmost part of Pinellas County and includes the county's most struggling schools. A majority of the students there come from low-income homes. As of 2010, black students composed 38 percent of District 7 attendance compared with 12 percent in the rest of the county.
On Thursday, Gallardo exhorted Gilzean to announce if he will run to keep the seat. Only former St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Rene Flowers has filed to run so far.
Gilzean said he's praying about it.
"It's good that we're having this dialog here," Gilzean told the group, "and what I'm seeing is that everyone here recognizes that fundamental question: What is Pinellas County going to look like in 10 to 15 years?"
Several said they left feeling good about the talk. But Maria Scruggs-Weston, a former St. Petersburg mayoral candidate, who did not attend, said it appeared to be political posturing on the part of the organizers.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected]
Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of the name Vyrle Davis.