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Plaintiffs seek to reopen federal school desegregation case against Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG — Citing broken promises by the Pinellas County School Board, the plaintiffs in a 50-year-old federal desegregation lawsuit announced Wednesday that they are going back to court in a bid to force school leaders to aid struggling black students.

Lawyers for the black families who originally sued the Pinellas County School District in 1964, eventually forcing countywide desegregation, are triggering a legal provision to push the case back in front of a mediator, said Roger Plata, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

It's the first step in a process that could end with a federal judge once again ordering school leaders to take specific steps to balance the scales for black students.

At a meeting Wednesday between school leaders and members of the black community, Plata said it was with a "sense of regret" that the group was planning to seek mediation in the case, Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County.

"We believe that there are massive irregularities in terms of complying with the court order," he said.

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Plata said he expected to file a motion in U.S. District Court in coming weeks.

When that happens, it will mark the second time in the past 20 years that the plaintiffs in the desegregation case have sought the court's help in enforcing the settlement agreement. School Board Attorney David Koperski said he would review the letter when he receives it but had no further comment. The School Board has been instructed not to comment.

The resurrection of the Civil Rights-era desegregation case is the latest fallout in the wake of "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then broke promises of money and resources for elementary schools that became overwhelmingly poor and black. The schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

The series also detailed how violence and disruption in the schools soared and experienced teachers fled after 2007. It found that black students in Pinellas are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the largest disparities in Florida — and that black students are largely shut out of the school system's best public schools.

In the wake of the series, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called for a federal investigation of the "crisis" in Pinellas County, prompting a review by the state Department of Education into how federal dollars for poor children have been spent. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who visited Campbell Park in October, called it a "man-made disaster" and "education malpractice."

Federal and state officials visited Pinellas last month as part of the ongoing review. A preliminary report obtained this week by the Times found more than a dozen "areas of concern." Among those, reviewers said that there was an unclear process to ensure the needs of low-income schools are being met and that the five schools in south St. Petersburg are receiving the same resources and programs without consideration of individual school needs.

A spokeswoman for the education department said Wednesday that the areas of concern could be mitigated by additional information from the school district. A final report is expected this summer.

District officials, who have sought to emphasize progress in recent months, have quietly made changes.

The School Board agreed to reduce the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and to change a policy that had penalized students' grades for missing school.

Superintendent Mike Grego hired Antonio Burt, a former principal and "turnaround" leader, to oversee improvement efforts and provide day-to-day guidance to principals in the five elementary schools. Burt said Wednesday that he expects to present his recommendations to the School Board in a month or so.

The schools, too, have made small changes to engage students. Some Melrose students are getting recess, and, at Lakewood, principal Cynthia Kidd has added African American literature to the curriculum.

It's unclear what effect legal action could have on the school district's operations.

The Bradley case has shaped the district's policies against racial discrimination for decades. A settlement agreement approved in 2000 and subsequent deals worked out between the district and the plaintiffs call for the school system to make sure black students aren't punished disproportionately; that they're guaranteed equal access to special programs like magnet schools; and that they're getting the support and instruction they need to perform well academically. They also call for the district to hire more black principals and teachers.

Plata and his co-counsel, Enrique Escarraz, first invoked the so-called "alternative dispute resolution" process in 2006 and, during the next seven years, secured five separate commitments by the school district to aid struggling black children. It remains to be seen whether Plata and Escarraz are again willing to enter into protracted negotiations with the district. Plata declined Wednesday to preview a strategy.

If they can't reach a deal with the district in mediation, the process calls for them to ask for a special overseer. A judge then could weigh the overseer's findings and order the school district to comply with the settlement agreement.

Nationwide, it's rare for plaintiffs in a federal desegregation suit to return to court and ask a judge that settlement agreements be enforced, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and an expert on school desegregation cases.

"I have not seen them being triggered a lot," he said.

Orfield predicted that Pinellas was at the forefront of a nationwide trend.

"I think a lot of people are looking at this. You look at these patterns in the data that you have from No Child Left Behind and you see the same kind of patterns that you would have seen decades ago," he said, adding that schools have started segregating again nationwide.

"People are noticing that again, saying, 'Isn't there anything we can do about this?'"

The plaintiffs in another case that played out in state court, Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, also are seeking to rekindle their lawsuit. A hearing in that case, which alleged the School Board was violating Florida's Constitution by denying black children a decent education, is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. April 29 in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Guy Burns, a lawyer for Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS, said Wednesday that "some dialogue" has started "at least among the lawyers." He said the lawyers met Tuesday and plan to meet again later this month.

Ricardo Davis, president of COQEBS, said that they welcome any action in the Bradley case that would advance the goal of closing the achievement gap and helping black students in Pinellas County. There has been years of talk, but little progress, he said.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at