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Black leaders say district broke promises made to settle lawsuit

The letter was delivered to school chief Michael Grego, who speaks at a community forum he and School Board member Rene Flowers hosted Friday.
The letter was delivered to school chief Michael Grego, who speaks at a community forum he and School Board member Rene Flowers hosted Friday.
Published Aug. 25, 2015

Pinellas County school leaders have broken promises they made to settle a lawsuit accusing them of shortchanging black students, according to the plaintiff in the case.

In a letter delivered to superintendent Mike Grego on Saturday, the group that sued the School Board said the district isn't doing enough to help struggling black students.

"We have concluded that the district continues to fail to meet its obligations regarding the education of black students," wrote Ricardo Davis, head of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students. "After five years, we simply do not feel any further discussions will be meaningful or helpful."

Davis' letter followed the publication of "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that traced the decline of schools in the county's black neighborhoods.

In his letter, Davis wrote that the district has failed to close the achievement gap between black and nonblack students.

He cited concerns with Grego's plan to aid five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg.

He also voiced frustration that the district has been slow to provide records and information to his group, which has been monitoring the district's efforts to help black students since they settled the state lawsuit in 2010.

Davis wrote that he had hoped to avoid going back to court.

"We regret having to take this step, but we feel the conduct of the district over the last five years has left us with no other alternative," Davis wrote.

Reached Monday, School Board attorney David Koperski declined to comment.

Davis referred questions to his group's attorney, Guy Burns.

"We've given it a reasonable attempt at talking through problems," Burns said of the group's dealings with the district. "We're going to be asking the court for the right to proceed with some court-imposed remedies."

Burns said he hopes to ask a state judge to force the district to spend more money on schools in the county's black neighborhoods.

Before that can happen, the group will have to clear legal hurdles, including going to U.S. District Court and getting permission from a federal judge to proceed.

But if successful, the move would resurrect Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, a class-action lawsuit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court in 2000.

The suit alleged the district was violating the state constitution by depriving black students of their right to a decent education. Davis' group, known as COQEBS, took over as the plaintiff in 2010. The case was settled the same year.

Since then, COQEBS has held regular meetings with district officials and has routinely asked the district for data and information, with mixed results.

The attempt at rekindling the long-settled lawsuit comes on the heels of the Times investigation. It revealed the School Board's role in transforming elementary schools in the county's black neighborhoods into five of the worst in Florida.

The stories showed that Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose all were performing near the state average when the School Board voted for a plan that resegregated them.

For years afterward, the board and district leaders failed to deliver promised money and resources as failure rates in the predominantly black schools soared, the Times reported.

The stories prompted a public relations campaign by the district as Grego and other leaders sought to reassure the county's black community. They also drew outrage from elected officials across the county and state.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Monday became the latest leader to weigh in. In a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Democrat asked for a federal review of how the district has funded its schools.

Contact Michael LaForgia at mlaforgia@tampabay.com. Follow @laforgia_.

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