Group wants to join suit vs. district

The suit says Pinellas schools have failed to educate blacks.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 5, 2008

CLEARWATER - A class-action lawsuit alleging that the Pinellas School District has failed to educate black children may be heading toward resolution after a six-month delay.

A group called the Black Student Achievement Council of Pinellas asked a circuit judge Friday to allow it to represent the plaintiffs in a case that has been wending its way through the court system for more than seven years.

Composed of several community activist groups, the council would take a lead role in championing the cause of the 20,000 African-American schoolchildren named in the lawsuit, said Guy Burns, lawyer for the plaintiffs.

"The feeling was that we needed a united front for a matter that is of great concern to all of these organizations," Burns said. "A decision was made to form a new group that could pick up the mantle of this case and move it forward."

Included in the council are Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Fred G. Minnis Bar Association, the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association and the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

Sami Scott, who co-chairs the group, said it is unique in that its members represent many facets of the African-American community. While several of them originally came together to express concern over the district's new student assignment plan, they now will focus on the lawsuit, Scott said.

"It's really a wakeup call to groups that have always had it in the back of their minds to come forward," Scott said. "This organization gives them an umbrella to sit under."

The council's request to represent the plaintiffs came at a status hearing on the case instigated by the School District. Action on the case ceased this summer when lead plaintiff William Crowley withdrew for personal reasons.

It will be up to the court to rule on whether the council can replace Crowley, said William A. Kebler, a lawyer representing the district, but the district will have a chance to weigh in on whether that would be appropriate.

And while the addition of a new lead plaintiff representative would get the case back on track, Kebler said, it also will mean a six-month delay in the trial while lawyers gather additional depositions.

Originally filed in 2000, the suit contends that race is the primary reason for the difference in test scores and graduation rates between black and white students in Pinellas County. It further alleges that the district suffers from a systemwide failure to educate students of African descent in violation of Florida's laws and constitution.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox has expressed on several occasions his eagerness to settle the case. "I don't care how it ends," he told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board a year ago. "It's just got to end, and I'm looking real hard for the most expedient pathway to do that."

But Wilcox has said he will never agree to the suit's demand that the district admit it has discriminated against black children. School Board attorney Jim Robinson reiterated the district's position in a phone interview Thursday.

"We're taking the case seriously," Robinson said, "but the notion that we are guilty of discrimination, that we are responsible for the achievement gap, is wrong."

Members of the Black Student Achievement Council argue otherwise, pointing to scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as one indication that the district isn't trying hard enough to educate black students.

In 2006, 65 percent of Pinellas' white students scored at or above grade level on the reading portion of the FCAT. Black students trailed by 32 percentage points, with only 33 percent meeting grade level expectations. In 2007, black students trailed their white counterparts by 35 percentage points in reading and 38 percentage points in math.

Burns, the plaintiff's lawyer, said his clients are not saying the gap is the district's fault. They're saying it's up to the district to do something about it and that the state Constitution requires it.

"We're not talking about whether the blue Buick ran the red light and therefore is at fault," Burns said. "We're saying that these people have a solemn obligation to try to educate these children. At some point in time, they need to recognize that what they're doing is not working."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.


Crowley case time line

August 2000: William Crowley alleges that his 7-year-old son, Akwete Osoka, has "experienced substantial academic difficulties" typical of those faced by black students in Pinellas County schools.

September 2000: The district argues that the case raises the same issues resolved in its federal desegregation case and requests that the lawsuit be thrown out.

July 2004: A Pinellas circuit judge broadens the case to class-action status, allowing it to represent all 21,000 black students in Pinellas public schools and those who may enter the system in the future.

August 2005: The district asks the 2nd District Court of Appeals to overturn the class-action ruling.

September 2005: An appellate court upholds the circuit judge's ruling on class-action status.

March 2007: The lawyer for the plaintiffs takes depositions from Pinellas School Board members.

May 2007: William Crowley withdraws as a lead plaintiff in the case; a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge removes the trial from the July 9 docket.

January 2008: A new group, the Black Student Achievement Council of Pinellas, files a motion to act as plaintiff class representative. The trial is tentatively scheduled for October.