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Pinellas schools chief tries to reassure parents he has addressed 'Failure factories'

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego speaks to community members at the forum in St. Petersburg on Friday. 
Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego speaks to community members at the forum in St. Petersburg on Friday. 
Published Dec. 9, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

Superintendent Mike Grego on Friday sought to reassure members of the city's black community in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times investigation that traced the district's role in resegregating five elementary schools and then turning them into some of the worst in Florida.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 parents, grandparents, community leaders and school employees, Grego described the steps he already has set in motion to improve the schools, including steering them more money and adding classroom aides, social workers and mental health counselors.

Some in the audience were skeptical.

"Stop coming and telling me stuff that makes me feel good," said Deveron Gibbons, a member of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College. "You keep coming down here and telling me about your plan. Include these people in your plan. It's time to include us."

Echoing others in the crowd, Gibbons asked Grego why it took a newspaper series to get district leaders to visit St. Petersburg. "If your intent is to help this community, why did you not come here first?"

"It appears to me that this meeting was called as a means of damage control," said another audience member, retiree Moses Holmes. "What's the plan to help these kids?"

Retired teacher Myrna Starling, who taught at Maximo Elementary for 29 years, called on the district to shake up the student enrollment plan and once again bus students out of south St. Petersburg. She said airports, movie theaters and stores are no longer racially segregated.

"So why are we accepting black schools?" she said, referring to the School Board's vote to abandon integration in 2007. "Why have we had 7 or 8 years of this craziness?"

For his part, Grego repeatedly acknowledged the district's role in creating problems in the schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — but urged the crowd to look forward instead of backward. "We have to stay together, and we have to stay united, and we have to begin to trust one another," Grego said.

Held at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Ninth Avenue S, the meeting was billed as a chance to discuss the district's "solutions for low-performing schools."

Also present were St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and School Board members Renee Flowers, Linda Lerner and Carol Cook. Not present at the meeting were Peggy O'Shea, who was traveling Friday, and Ken Peluso, who was recovering from surgery. Terry Krassner and Janet Clark also were not at the meeting. They didn't return calls for comment ahead of the forum.

The meeting came in the aftermath of "Failure Factories," a Times investigation that exposed the district's role in creating five of Florida's worst schools in the county's black neighborhoods.

The first installment showed that the five schools all were average in 2007, when the School Board voted for neighborhood schools. In the next eight years, they became the most segregated schools in the county — and their failure rates became among the highest in the state.

The second installment, published online Friday, revealed that violence and disruptions have spiraled out of control in the schools while district leaders neglected programs that would have made them safer.

Before the meeting, in their first public comments since the series began, three School Board members defended the district while expressing a willingness to consider new ways of improving the schools.

Lerner, the board chairwoman, said she wanted to study what other districts were doing to aid black children. Peluso pointed to solutions already in the works. O'Shea said she was open to considering a new student enrollment plan. "It is time to have more creative discussions," O'Shea said.

The forum was the latest move by a district seeking to reassure the county's black community.

After the Times series began, district officials launched a public relations campaign outlining efforts to improve the schools. They posted a documentary-style video on the district website that touted the schools' "sense of pride and belonging."

In spite of those efforts, leaders across the area are expressing outrage.

On Wednesday, State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called on the state Attorney General's Office to investigate whether the Pinellas school system has discriminated against black students.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, asked the U.S. Department of Education to review whether Pinellas is equitably funding its most segregated schools, calling the situation a "crisis."

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