Tampa Bay Times investigative reporter Michael LaForgia discusses how after re-segregation, wealthy and majority-white Pinellas County became the worst place for Black students to attend public school in Florida


Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. It’s an equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating tale. In less than a decade one wealthy majority white Florida school district turned schools in black neighborhoods into, quote, failure factories. And that’s the name of the year-long explosive investigation by a team of reporters at the Tampa Bay Times that bring light to how the Pinellas County School Board turned five average yet improving elementary schools in south St. Petersburg into some of the worst places for black students to go in Florida. The authors write, quote, first they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelming poor and black. Then they broke promises of more money and resources. Then as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse, the school board stood by and did nothing. The results today are jaw-dropping. Today some 95 percent of students are failing either math or English. These five schools are the worst-performing in the entire county, and are out-performed by schools with poorer populations and in more dangerous neighborhoods. Published just days ago, the report is already sending shockwaves across Pinellas County and the country. Residents have expressed outrage. Officials have promised to increase resources going into the schools. But some advocates say that’s not enough. Well, now joining us to discuss this is Michael LaForgia. He’s one of the co-authors of the year-long investigation titled Failure Factories for the Tampa Bay Times. Thank you so much for joining us. MICHAEL LAFORGIA, TAMPA BAY TIMES: Thanks for having me. NOOR: So this is an absolutely outstanding investigation. I encourage all of our viewers to read it, and we’re going to link to it on our site. The story goes back further, but in 1971 the Pinellas School Board–and this county is wealthy and majority white, one of the wealthiest in all Florida–they voted to desegregate their schools and did so under federal monitoring. Some 36 years later in 2007 the federal monitoring was lifted, and the school board reversed that decision. Tell us what you uncovered about what happened next. LAFORGIA: Well first of all, when they voted to desegregate the district, it was as you said under federal duress, right. So the school board was being monitored by a judge as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed by a black parent that wanted to get his son into an all-white school. So that was filed in 1964. It was only after seven years that the board finally voted to desegregate schools countywide. So in the years between 1971 and 2007 it seemed like the county was making progress. Kids–first of all, no school was more, was allowed to be more than 30 percent black. The district was experimenting with voluntary integration through magnet programs, and there is a pretty robust busing system. A system in which African-American kids actually bore the brunt of the transportation. So as all of that was unfolding, however, the tools of integration, school buses, costly programs, those chafed on taxpayers, and on parents who didn’t want their kids standing out on street corners before the sun came up to catch a ride to a far-away school. So there was sort of a tide of resentment that had always been rising against integration efforts, against busing specifically. And it was only after federal oversight expired in 2007 as a term of the settlement agreement that that tide of popular support had a chance to manifest itself in the school board’s decision to step away from busing and integration. NOOR: And you make it clear that before–it’s when this resegregation plan was being discussed, black parents and even school board members that voted for the plan, even the superintendent acknowledges going to be difficult, and the black parents were–they warned that this had a good chance of ruining their schools. And not to say these schools were necessarily outstanding, but they were average at least, and they were showing improvement during this time. LAFORGIA: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, everyone knew what was going to happen when this vote came down. When it came time to vote on this new neighborhood schools plan. The word resegregation was used at the time. It was used frequently in the meetings leading up to this event. They committed at the time, they assured people that they were going to add extra money, extra resources. Counselors, behavior specialists, therapy. They were going to flood these schools with the types of things that were going to be needed to counter the problems of poverty. And over the years those things never materialized. And that’s what got us into the situation we’re facing today. NOOR: And so you make it clear in this investigation that the school board members heard repeatedly from parents and teachers that–they begged for relief. And you know, you cite the reports that teachers write every year, saying just about the absolute appalling and desperate conditions in these schools. Yet, as you write, when contacted the board members pleaded ignorance, distorted facts, and said they were unable to act to address these problems. And now as a result of this investigation, and not necessarily as a result of parents and teachers pleading for all these years for help, now they’ve promised change. But what has the response been of the community? And what’s your response to these promises of change? Because they’ve been made and broken continually over the years. LAFORGIA: Well, sure. So I mean, broadly, this has not come up a lot in school board meetings, in workshops, in board members’ public appearances. Since 2007 this has been a relatively quiet issue on the Pinellas County School Board. You ask about the community’s reaction. I think that members of the community feel vindicated by the response to the story, and I think a lot of them are a little bit perplexed that it had to take a newspaper investigation to galvanize this type of support for making change. So that’s what my answer would be. NOOR: And in the article you talk, you cite many statistics, something like 90 or 95 percent of students are failing math or English. The worst school in the county, the worst place in Florida for black students to go to school. But you also share some human stories as well. And I wanted to ask you about ten-year-old Fairmount Park Elementary School student Cayton Bodden. Tell us about him, and what the human impact was on him. LAFORGIA: Right. Cayton Bodden started the fourth grade at Fairmount Park after leaving a charter school that ultimately I believe ended up having to close. Previously he had been doing pretty well. He was making As and Bs. Sweet kid, you know, athletic. Wants to play football. He’s about 4′ 8”. He was, as soon as he got to Fairmount Park, he could tell that there was something wrong with the place. He woke up every morning afraid to go to school. He got bullied. He was constantly being slapped and kicked by one student in particular, he said. And as this continued his grades went on a slide from As and Bs down to at one point all Fs. And Cayton’s mother, a single mother who had a good job at an engineering firm in Tampa but still didn’t have a ton of money to invest in private school or in transportation for him to go to school elsewhere in the county, she was standing by while he, his grades were suffering, and just growing more and more desperate. It was wrenching for her to see her son in this situation, and she felt trapped in our public school system. NOOR: I wanted to get your response to a quote by Goliath Davis in your story. He’s a former police chief and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He asked, what happens to all these kids? What do they do? Every time we fail one, the criminal justice system is a winner. And you’d rather pay to keep them incarcerated than to try to straighten out the system? Now, he’s obviously making an allusion to the school to prison pipeline. The idea that if you send a student to a failing school it has a destructive impact on them, it hurts their chances to get a job and to make it in life, once they get out of school. And as former police chief he’s been one of the advocates on behalf of these schools, and yet even his pleas seem to be gone on deaf ears. LAFORGIA: Well–and that’s right. I think that you hear in that quote by Dr. Davis the frustration that many in the community have felt when trying to raise this issue in front of the school board and in front of district leaders, in front of city leaders, in front of the chamber of commerce locally. They feel like they have expressed themselves and expressed these problems to all of these bodies. And that none of them has taken this seriously until it blew up in the press. So I think there is a lot of frustration in that quote by Dr. Davis, and in many of the leaders who have made this a priority over the last 10, 15, 20 years. NOOR: Now, the school system says they do have a plan to address these problems. They say they’ve been working on it for some time now. They’re going to convert three of the five schools into magnet schools, which means they’re going to bus in students, they’re going to give them more resources, which are obviously sorely lacking. But you’ve also had some detractors as well, who have criticized this reporting and said it’s not fair, and people that defend the status quo. Can you tell us a little bit about what they’ve said and what your response is? LAFORGIA: I don’t know of anyone who is in touch with reality who can look at one of these schools and say there aren’t any problems in these places. And they’re not the ones who ranked these schools the worst in Florida. That was the State Department of Education. And they ranked them on a pretty precise metric that combines the percentage of kids who are proficient at reading with a measure of how well they’ve learned from the preceding year. And if you add those two numbers up and then sort them from lowest to highest, Melrose, one of our schools, is the worst school in Florida. Fairmount Park is number two, and on and on and on, up until number 15, I believe. All of these schools are clustered in a six square mile area in Pinellas County’s black neighborhoods. And it can’t–the situation in these schools can’t get much worse. In fact, some of them are on the cusp of serious state action because of their long record of failure. And that would have been true regardless of whether we wrote any stories. NOOR: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us, and for this excellent, must-read investigation, Failure Factories. LAFORGIA: Thanks for having me. NOOR: And we’re going to link to the story at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.

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Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.