Editorial: Denying reality will not help Pinellas schools

The nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation undercuts its efforts and its credibility by acting as an apologist for the school district’s shortcomings.
The nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation undercuts its efforts and its credibility by acting as an apologist for the school district’s shortcomings.
Published Dec. 10, 2015

The nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation's self-described mission is to improve and enhance educational opportunities in the county's school system. Yet it undercuts its efforts and its credibility by acting as an apologist for the school district's shortcomings and denying volumes of objective measures of the failures of low-performing elementary schools in St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhoods. Promoting a foundation bus tour to two of the schools and a district-produced two-minute video that makes light of the challenges hurts the very students the foundation is trying to help and gives School Board members cover to deny a reality they don't want to address.

To his credit, superintendent Michael Grego at least corrected the record on Tuesday, hours after the School Board watched the video: "Everything is not fine. I don't think anyone thinks that. I hope nobody walks away with that."

Nobody should, particularly members of the Education Foundation. An ongoing Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," reports how the school district has failed five schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — which are now predominantly poor and black. These schools, which once were average, are now ranked in the bottom 15 of all elementary schools in Florida by the Department of Education. Last year, there were more violent incidents in these elementary schools than in all of Pinellas' 17 high schools. These are facts.

Grego has focused on these schools, and the School Board approved his request to hire a turnaround specialist for the five schools just before it watched the video. The value of this new position can be debated, but at least the superintendent is more aggressively addressing the big challenges still facing these schools and acknowledges there is much work to be done. The scope of the problems and the sense of urgency required to address them is still lost on some members of the School Board and the Education Foundation.

In a letter, foundation member Alex McKenna wrote that the "public is being held hostage to information which does a disservice to children" and said it was time to "debunk the Failure Factories myth." Foundation board chairwoman Cathy Collins, whose first visit to any of the five schools was on the bus tour, discounted the articles when she appeared in the video, later told a reporter the schools were "amazingly clean'' and then misnamed one of the two schools on the tour. School Board member Linda Lerner quoted the McKenna letter and said that the video shows "what's really happening." What's really happening is the district's longest-serving School Board member remains in denial about the abject failures of this school district to fulfill its obligation to effectively educate low-income minority students during her 25-year tenure.

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The Pinellas Education Foundation has done much good work for Pinellas schools, serving as an able adviser, supporter and fundraiser. That includes funding 25 college scholarships for students attending these five troubled elementaries. But it is going to take a greater investment of financial and human capital from the private sector to help the district improve these schools and help every student perform at least at grade level in reading and math. When School Board and Education Foundation members minimize the challenges, deny the facts and gloss over the failures, they undermine the potential for building the broad public effort needed to tackle a crisis that has been years in the making.This editorial has been updated to reflect the following correction: Alex McKenna is a Pinellas Education Foundation committee member, not a member of the foundation's board. A Times editorial Thursday misstated McKenna's role.