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Question of trust dogs school district

The recommendation is significant: Change Pinellas' court-ordered busing plan, perhaps the strictest in the nation, to allow for some majority-black schools.

This proposal, by a district-appointed task force, suggests that the county has not served black students well by busing them miles and dropping them at the doors of majority-white schools. So, proponents say, bring them home.

Opponents of the plan want to keep busing for desegregation because, they say, creating black schools will bring back the inequalities of "separate but equal."

These two positions are diametrically opposed, yet they have a common theme. It is a theme that continues to dog the task force as it prepares for an April meeting with the School Board: distrust of the Pinellas school district.

Boiled down to its essence, the issue is: Many black parents and educators do not trust the school system to educate black students adequately.

Proponents of the plan say, Return black students to their neighborhood schools because they are not learning and have lower achievement levels than white students. We want them in schools near their homes, taught by teachers who understand and care about them, who expect much of them and who know their families.

Opponents, on the other hand, say, We've seen how this district dealt with black students before a court ordered it to desegregate. Given a chance, the district will revert to pre-1971 inequities.

Even those on the task force whose views fall between acknowledge that there is distrust of the schools.

So if the district is to gain support for whatever position it takes on the task force's busing recommendation, it needs to confront the issue of trust, observers say.

"I want a commitment, a commitment you're concerned," task force member Elithia Stanfield said. "Live up to the vision that you're concerned about all."

To understand the deep-seated feelings about the school district and black students, it is important to understand the local history.

Before 1971, Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg was an all-black school.

From its beginning, Gibbs was treated unfairly by white school administrators, who referred to the county's "six high schools." There were seven, including Gibbs.

Black principals were not allowed into administrative meetings at the beginning of each school year to discuss new educational techniques. A black administrator would later give them a secondhand report of the meetings.

Black students did not get new texts, desks or science equipment. The district gave them cast-offs from white schools.

Then came the busing order in 1971, still in effect. A racial quota is set for each and every school, and white and black students are bused to maintain those ratios.

Now that whites attend the schools in the southern part of the county, the situation is improving, said Bishop John Copeland, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

For example, Gibbs now has air conditioning, and a ramp has been built for students to get from one side of the street to the other, he said.

Sixteenth Street Middle School also is being improved, Copeland said.

"Before, there was no money for it," he said.

Still, some inequities continue to this day, according to state Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson, a former state representative and teacher from St. Petersburg who is a product of Pinellas County schools.

African-Americans are overrepresented in exceptional education and handicapped classes but underrepresented in gifted programs and in the ranks of teachers and administrators, he said.

"So there's an inclination to be distrustful of the superintendent and the district administration," he said.

Task force member Shirley Davis said she also is concerned by the district's contention that poverty is the cause of low achievement.

She said that has angered some members of the black community because there appears an underlying assumption that nothing can be done for those children.

"They say it's a way to write us off," Davis said.

She also talks about the district from the standpoint of a mother.

Davis, a former school administrator from Syracuse, N.Y., said that when her family moved into the district, she found "it wasn't user-friendly and it didn't get any better."

For example, she never moved the entire time her son was in school, yet every year, she said, she had to go to the school to prove she lived in that attendance zone.

"I don't want to blame it on racism," Davis said. "It may be just the times."

"Bring them home'

Davis is among those who say the School Board should petition the court to change the busing plan.

Davis and others want to re-establish majority-black schools, and reminisce about the days when those schools turned out well-educated citizens.

They resent the implication that an all-white school is superior by definition whereas an all-black school automatically is inferior.

"I don't want to see another black kid get on the bus" to go to north county, Davis said. "Bring them home."

The call for an all-black school, Davis said, is not an attempt at re-segregation, but an effort to recapture a time when teachers knew students and their parents and cared to challenge those students to achieve. And it apparently cannot be done in a non-segregated setting, Davis said.

"There was this community of all those kids who went to that school," Davis said. "We did not have all the modern technology . . . but we learned."

Children today do not have that sense of community, she said, nor do they have teachers who make impacts on their lives. Her son, for example, has no teacher who stands out.

"I grieve because he doesn't have anybody to remember," Davis said.

Keep the court order

Some people in the black community are so distrustful of the district that they will not even consider the possibility of changing the court order.

"I'm against anyone tampering with that court order, or trying to tamper with it," said Garnelle Jenkins, president of the NAACP, St. Petersburg branch.

The goal, she said, is desegregation, and any changes to the court order must not give up that goal.

"There's no such thing as separate but equal," Jenkins said.

Copeland agreed with Jenkins, saying, "I don't think we should ever attempt to try separate but equal unless the schools that are segregated are run by those who go to that school."

The School Board is all-white, Copeland noted, and cannot be trusted to watch out for non-white children.

Equal education?

Trust also is the issue behind another proposal the task force is still debating: that the court monitor whether students are getting an equal education.

This recommendation would significantly change and broaden the court order. No longer would it be concerned only with busing for desegregation, but with educational outcomes as well.

That students are not getting an equal education is a view acknowledged by virtually everyone on the task force.

The idea of monitoring equal education was proposed by task force member Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers' Association, who said he saw it as the key to proving the district is serious about establishing trust.

Supporters of the idea include at least five of the task force's 13 members: Tuthill, Davis, Stanfield, Adelle Vaughn Jemison and Curtiss Long.

"There has to be a heavy emphasis on accountability," Jemison has said during task force discussions. "Learning outcomes is the only way to go."

Opponents include Ron Walker and Bert Blomquist, both former School Board members.

"I don't understand why we insist it has to be a court order to do this," Blomquist has said.

Building trust

Is there any way the district can build trust?

"We do have a trust problem; we've got to meet it head on," said School Board member Linda Lerner.

It begins with reaching out, Lerner said. The board needs to be more accessible, and part of that is meeting at night so people who work during the day can attend meetings.

"I think there needs to be a statement that the whole board is there to listen," Lerner said.

Stanfield agreed that the board and administration need to listen more.

Then they must walk their talk, she said, and begin non-traditional ways of reaching out to people.

One way, she said, is to hold school advisory board and PTA meetings at locations more convenient to the parents of children who are bused.

The administration also should understand that some schools are wealthier than others, so their PTAs can afford to do more for the school, Stanfield said. That should be taken into consideration when making purchases so that poorer schools are not penalized.

All children should have the instruments needed to achieve, she said.

Education Commissioner Jamerson suggested that a way to begin the healing is for the district to develop a written plan of ways to address some of the issues, such as the lack of minority teachers and administrators.

"At the administrative level," Jamerson said, "there should be efforts that are demonstrative rather than rhetorical."

Stanfield said the district must go to the community and say: "We have some problems, have made some mistakes. What do you suggest we do?"

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.