Darryl Rouson challenged by School Board chair on South St. Pete school crisis


Reaction was fierce and accusatory in the immediate wake of the revelations of a Tampa Bay Times story published last month that traced the Pinellas County School Board’s role in resegregating five elementary schools and having them turn into some of the worst performing ones in Florida.

St. Petersburg based House Democrat Darryl Rouson called on the Florida attorney attorney general’s office of civil rights to investigate whether the Pinellas County School Board’s decision in 2007 has resulted in discrimination against black students. At a Suncoast Tiger Bay appearance at the St. Pete Yacht Club on Tuesday, Rouson was slightly less judgmental, saying that he has toured four of the five school named in the damning report (Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melros) and saw some “good things” happening there not captured in the newspaper series.

But he said that whether it was fair or not, the community “perceives” that there are severe problems at those schools, and accused the school board of being “disconnected from the reality” of those problems.

A few moments later, Rouson’s assertion was challenged by school board chair Linda Lerner, who implied that the lawmaker was grandstanding, saying that he knows the district is now spending $6,000 more per student in the schools (a recent published report had that at $4,000) and making other corrective measures to address those failing schools.

“Tell me specifically how you feel this time the board is discriminating against those students?” Lerner asked.

“That’s a very easy question to answer, with all due respect,” he replied. “The community feels that there’s been a disconnect between the school board and what’s been going on over the past five, six years.”

Afterwards, Lerner said was disappointed by the lawmaker’s response.”He said it was perception, which says to me he understands the reality.” Lerner says that under current school board superintendent Mike Greco, the resources are now going to the schools in question.

That was only one exchange in the 61-year-old Rouson’s performance at the Tiger Bay Club. The Democrat will be term-limited next year out of his unusually configured House District 70 seat, which encompasses South Pinellas, along with parts of Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Rouson was presumed to be running next for the state Hillsborough/Pinellas-based Senate seat that will be vacated by Tampa’s Arthenia Joyner in 2016 against fellow Democrat Betty Reed – but those plans are on hold until the Florida Legislature redraws all of the senate districts sometime next month – with the odds looking strong that Senate district will not cross Tampa Bay into Pinellas County, cutting out Rouson, a St. Petersburg resident.

Rouson said that wherever he ends up running for next year, he’s going to stand by his record, which includes passing 15 bills in the GOP-led Legislature since going to Tallahassee in 2008.

Like many other observers of Tallahassee politics, Rouson says that he’s finally getting the hang of his gig seven years in, and thinks it’s unfortunate that his acquired wisdom will be for naught when he’s term-limited out next year. When asked if there’s was any momentum to extend term-limits (something that former St. Pete legislator and now Mayor Rick Kriseman proposed years ago), Rouson said there was nothing doing there in the Legislature.

Rouson is one of 18 house Democrats in the Legislature taking the “minimum wage challenge” this week in Florida in solidarity with the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign being led by the Service Employees International Union. Instead of indulging in the repast that every other dues-paying Tiger Bay member enjoyed, Rouson brought a brown bag lunch to the event, and said he will take two buses on Wednesday to get to his law firm which is usually only an eight-minute commute.

He also was passionate in the excessive amount of motorists in Pinellas and the state who have had their drivers license suspended. Rouson helped lead an event back in July at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church that included a county judge along with court staff to review individuals’ cases for reinstatement of their driver’s licenses.  The lawmaker said there are over 100,000 people with suspended licenses in the county, and he thanked state Senator Jeff Brandes for saying that fixing the issue will be a top priority when the Legislature convenes in January.

A former Republican, Rouson refrained from appearing too partisan when asked by Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch if he could be “King for a day,” how would he fix the Florida House of Representatives?

“That’s a good question,” Rouson responded. “I reserve the right to remain silent.”

And he did – on that issue, anyhow.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected].


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