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Federal, state plaintiffs plan to carry on lawsuits with Pinellas school district

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs of federal and state lawsuits against the Pinellas County school district for not doing enough to educate black children spoke out at a community meeting Wednesday, reporting no progress has been made in their respective issues with the district.

Roger Plata, representing the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a federal case, and Guy Burns, a lawyer for the Concerned Organization of the Quality Organization of Black Students (COQEBS), which has reopened a state class-action suit, took turns stating their case at a COQEBS meeting Wednesday at Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego was also in attendance for the second time since his 2012 appointment.

Plata said he met with school district officials twice in August and didn't find "any basis for agreement," on the district's progress, including their celebration of improved state standardized test scores among the five elementary schools highlighted in the Times' Failure Factories series. He said he looked over the the Florida Standards Assessment results of those five schools from 2015 and 2016 and found "virtually no improvement," despite a 45 percent staff turnover between those five schools.

The "tremendous shake-up" of school staff, Plata said, "didn't seem to correlate with regard to the improvements the schools made."

Plata also commented on the Southern Poverty Law Center's federal civil rights complaint against the school district, which detailed the school district's "alarming" use of pepper spray on students.

"We've never heard of that," Plata said. "Never seen that. No one has ever mentioned that."

Another public mediation in the federal case is planned for Friday.

Then, Burns spoke up. He said he received a thumb drive of data from the school district that "has some harsh realities from it." He said the school district put a "positive spin on the data." For example, the school district said the achievement gap between black and non-black students in reading closed 7 percentage points, but he found that black students improved 3 percentage points while non-black students dropped 4 percentage points.

"The achievement gap remains significant," Burns said. Later, he added, "I would like to see people from Largo offices in our community."

Grego, who did not respond to Plata and Burns comments during the meeting, said he attended Wednesday because he "just wanted to demonstrate my support."

Grego said Plata's teacher turnover statistic is "skewed" because many teachers, especially mothers with young children, weren't up to working an extended day. He said there was also an emphasis to put more experienced teachers in those classrooms.

Grego was more worked up about Burns' comments. He said he explained the 7 percentage point statistic at a meeting that Burns and COQEBS representatives did not attend. COQEBS president Ric Davis said he did not attend because of legal technicalities.

"I don't know if this is a show here," Grego said. "The state's (English Language Arts), across the board, proficiency rates went down."

Grego said extra tutoring and mentoring for black students "is truly a celebration."

"That's telling us that those strategies for minority students are working," he said. "Let's do it for all the students."