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  1. Education

Romano: A good, old-fashioned 'I'm sorry' would help in discussion of failing schools

This is a column about two apologies, one deserved and one owed.

It begins with a woman understandably upset about the spiraling test scores of students at five predominantly black elementary schools in St. Petersburg.

She took her anger to the Pinellas County School Board meeting Tuesday afternoon, and punctuated her three-minute address by unfolding a Confederate battle flag.

The insinuation was clear. Both the flag and her references to the days of Jim Crow laws were unmistakable suggestions that this School Board has been intentionally treating black children as second-class citizens.

The display was dramatic, but it was also over the top. It did nothing to further the search for solutions, and I would think every member of the School Board deserves an apology.

Frankly, it is the same type of thinking — except running in the opposite direction — of those who shout that the blame should be left completely at the feet of black parents.

Neither extreme takes into account the enormous number of factors that have contributed to this devastating situation.

If you want to accuse School Board members of negligence, I will not disagree. But underperforming in your job is not the same thing as racism.

What occurred in these schools was more like an illness that went untreated. Each new symptom created an additional level of problems that eventually led to a full-blown crisis.

And this is where we arrive at the second apology.

I keep waiting for someone on the School Board to acknowledge the county's responsibility in this mess. Yes, the underlying problem is a cycle of poverty that is beyond the board's control. And, yes, superintendent Mike Grego started reforms two years ago that, hopefully, will bring about new results down the road.

But neither of those factors explains how Pinellas' schools were allowed to fall so far behind similarly challenged schools in similar-sized counties in Florida. And no explanation will ever replace the years of instruction that have already been lost.

So someone owes the students of Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose an apology. Those children deserved better.

To be honest, I'm stunned that no one on the School Board stood up in Tuesday's meeting and acknowledged this.

Poverty in this city is not new. The board was well aware of the potential for complications when creating neighborhood schools in impoverished communities.

Lowering standards was surely not part of a master plan, but it was clearly a potential risk, and no one, apparently, was watching closely enough to avoid it.

Now, board members are free to blame the Tampa Bay Times, and they have, for not framing stories the way school officials would have preferred. And they are welcome to insinuate that the revolving door of superintendents a few years ago played a major role in these schools slipping through the cracks.

They can even throw their hands up in the air and bemoan the state's obsession with testing, or whisper that St. Petersburg's inability to stimulate the economy south of Central Avenue is the true cause of these troubles.

Yet, at some point, they need to be honest with themselves and with the voters who elected them. This happened on their watch.

They may not have intended for it to happen, but they need to own it.

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