Throwing emotions onto the table so late in the Pensacola City Council meeting made them seem especially raw. The sentiment, however, would have been just as jarring any time.
“You can’t just let people keep steamrolling over you your whole life,” said Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds. “—cause I’m not in that bag.”
Jerralds lobbed his comments into the middle of fluff back-and-forth between his fellow council members. He seemed irritated listening to them discuss the Escambia County School District’s recent move to spend over $20 million to build a new A.K. Suter Elementary School, even though the school’s enrollment is one of the smallest in the county—only 367 students.
The much-heralded Global Learning Academy replaced two elementary schools, Allie Yinestra and Hallmark, and received half of the students from the closed Spencer Elementary. The school cost around $17 million to build and has 814 students.
“Every school in the black community—especially District 3—has been shut down, boarded up and abandoned,” Jerralds told the council.
The Feb. 23 rant arose after Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer’s report concerning his visit to a school board meeting earlier in the week. The councilman attended that meeting in an attempt to convince district Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and the Escambia County School Board to work with the city in addressing a number of abandoned properties—Allie Yinestra, Hallmark, and Spencer Bibbs schools and the old district offices in downtown Pensacola.
Jerralds had attended the school board meeting as well. He was there to honor Dr. Charles Augustus, who was being recognized by the district. Although Augustus—a black man—lived only a few blocks from O.J. Semmes Elementary School, his children were not allowed to attend due to the color of their skin. He eventually took the issue to court. His case led to Federal Judge Winston Arnow ordering in 1969 the desegregation of the Escambia County public schools
Jerralds told his fellow council members that he started getting worked up during the school board meeting as he listened to Spencer speak about the district’s abandoned properties. Less than five years ago the school district almost recommended closing Suter, but the new superintendent and the school board instead approved the new construction. The contrast in how the district treated schools in black and in white neighborhoods was painfully stark.
“They need to open their closed minds and focus,” Jerralds said of the school board.
The city councilman contended that the district’s move to close schools in predominately black areas has resulted in an erosion of those communities.
“A school is considered a place of anchor in a community,” Jerralds said.
A recently released study by the Center for American Progress reinforced Jerralds’ point. The study looked at how community schools that provide services and programs for both students and their families positively affected learning outcomes.
“In a nation where 42 percent of children live in low-income families, too many schools face the challenge of teaching students burdened with unmet needs that pose obstacles to learning,” the Washington-based think-tank stated when the report was released. “If our aim as a country is to ensure that all children succeed academically, particularly those living in struggling communities with limited resources, we simply can’t ask schools to do it alone.
Councilman Jerralds said that he felt the presence of a school encourages people to move into an area and take root. When a school is closed down, it fosters the opposite.
“We need to rebuild black schools within our communities,” Jerralds said.
When contacted by the IN for a reaction to Jerralds’ comments, Superintendent Thomas bristled at the notion that the district is neglecting the minority community.
“That’s just not true,” he said.
The superintendent pointed to the district’s newly-minted Global Learning Academy, which has been touted as a state-of-the-art, technologically savvy campus.
“The first school we built was for some of the poorest students in our community,” Thomas said, rattling off GLA’s attributes. “It may be the best … and they are the students John (Jerralds) is talking about.”
The superintendent defended recent closures, like Spencer Bibbs Elementary, citing low enrollment numbers. There were plans, he said, for the properties.
“We can’t continue to sustain schools with 250 students on campus,” Thomas said, before suggesting the city chip in on the tab. “Now, if the city council wants to give us money, we’ll look at that.”
When the IN contacted him after the council meeting, Jerralds maintained that the opening of schools like Global Learning Academy don’t replace schools shuttered by the district, or reverse the effect on the respective neighborhoods. Those areas, the councilman said, suffer as a result and feed into a cycle of broader disparity in the region.
“The disparity is widespread,” Jerralds said.
The city of Pensacola commissioned last spring a disparity study that can be used to help the city improve its contracting with minority-owned contractors and vendors.
Jerralds said that he felt racial disparities were particularly alarming locally. The councilman reflected on the many decades since the Civil Rights movement and wondered how much longer it might take for blacks to attain equal footing.
“I’m 65,” Jerralds said. “When people say, ‘it’s going to take a long time,’—hell, how much time do I have?”
The country’s election of a black president, the councilman noted, has done little to alleviate the problems locally.
“Didn’t change the situation here in Pensacola,” he said. “If it did, I wouldn’t be saying what I’m saying.”
The IN reported in its Feb 23 issue (“Black & White”) that while black students comprise 35 percent of the school district’s enrollment there are only eight African-American principals. Only 12.7 percent of the full-time instructional staff are black, a percentage that has decreased under Thomas’ leadership.
By Jerralds’ account, the area has historically trailed behind the curve when it comes to racial equality. The councilman said that Dr. Augustus—who championed the cause nearly two decades after most of the country had desegregated its schools—served to put the matter in perspective.
“We were still in court in Escambia County in 1969?” Jerralds said, noting the region’s traditional lag. “There are some disparities here and they need to be addressed.”